US closes consulate in southern Iraq after attack by Iran-backed militia

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says temporary shuttering of mission in Basra comes due to ‘increasing and specific threats’ from Tehran and its armed proxies

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York on September 25, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York on September 25, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department said Friday that it would temporarily close the US consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra following a rocket attack earlier this month blamed on Iranian-backed militias.

Diplomatic staff and their families were being evacuated and consular services will be provided from the US Embassy in Baghdad, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it a “temporary relocation” in response to what he called “increasing and specific threats” from the Iranian government and militias under its control. He warned that the US would respond to any more attacks.

“I have advised the government of Iran that the United States will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to Americans or to our diplomatic facilities in Iraq or elsewhere and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias,” he said.

Basra hosts one of three US diplomatic missions in Iraq. It is the country’s oil capital and main port but remains one of the least developed parts of the country. It has been shaken by violent protests in recent months over entrenched corruption and poor public services.

Earlier this month, protesters turned their rage on neighboring Iran, blaming its outsized influence in Iraq’s political affairs for their misery. They stormed the Iranian consulate and set it on fire, causing significant damage.

An Iraqi protester holds up an Iranian flag as another sets it on fire, next to a portrait depicting Iran’s former and current Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei, during demonstrations against the government and the lack of basic services in Basra on September 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Haidar Mohammad Ali)

About a week later, after a Shiite militia vowed revenge for the attack on the Iranian consulate, three Katyusha rockets were fired at Basra’s airport, which houses the US consulate. No casualties were reported.

Pompeo tweeted Tuesday that Iran-supported militias had launched the attacks, warning, “We’ll hold Iran’s regime accountable for any attack on our personnel or facilities, and respond swiftly and decisively in defense of American lives.”

The temporary closure of the Basra consulate comes as the Trump administration is increasing pressure on Iran ahead of powerful sanctions set to take effect in November.

The Trump administration withdrew from the landmark 2015 deal with Iran in May and has been gradually reintroducing sanctions against the government in Tehran. At a speech in New York this week, Pompeo ticked off a list of complaints against the Iranian government, from its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen to sponsoring or plotting attempted terrorist attacks in Africa, Asia and Europe.

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