US said readying to evacuate contractors from Iraqi base due to security threat
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US said readying to evacuate contractors from Iraqi base due to security threat

400 staff members from Lockheed Martin Corp, Sallyport Global will reportedly be airlifted from Balad base amid a tense standoff between Baghdad’s key allies, Washington and Tehran

In this illustrative photo from February 13, 2018, an Iraqi army soldier stands guard near a US- made Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter jet at the Balad Air Base, 45 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
In this illustrative photo from February 13, 2018, an Iraqi army soldier stands guard near a US- made Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter jet at the Balad Air Base, 45 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

US forces are preparing to evacuate nearly 400 contractors from the Balad military base over “potential security threats,” three Iraqi military sources told the Reuters news agency on Friday.

The staff are working for Lockheed Martin Corp and Sallyport Global at the air base which houses US forces some 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad.

The sources did not give any further details about the security threats but said around half of the 800 contractors on site would be evacuated, with one saying the operation would take 10 days.

Two other military sources said the evacuation would use military aircraft.

A US Air Force honor guard shooting party practices before a ceremony marking Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2010 at Joint Base Balad, north of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

US assets in Iraq have been targeted frequently over the past week amid a tense standoff between Baghdad’s key allies, Washington and Tehran.

President Donald Trump said Friday the US was “cocked and loaded” to retaliate against Iran for downing an American drone Thursday, but canceled the strikes 10 minutes before they were to be carried out after being told some 150 people could die.

Citing Iranian threats, the US recently sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there.

Militants fired three mortar shells at the Balad base last week, causing small fires in bushes on the base which were extinguished immediately.

An Iraqi intelligence officer said Wednesday that 40 workers for the energy giant Exxon Mobil were being evacuated from an oil-drilling site in southern Iraq after they came under rocket fire.

Iraqi soldiers guard the entry of the Zubair oil field after a Katyusha rocket hit a drilling company in the Burjesiya area, a key oil-producing region hosting various Iraqi and foreign companies including US giant Exxon Mobil, north of the Iraqi city of Basra on June 19, 2019. (Hussein Faleh/AFP)

Hours before the incident, the Iraqi military announced that an improvised rocket had hit a regional command base in the northern city of Mosul, where American troops are reportedly deployed.

And on Monday evening, three Katyusha rockets hit the Taji army base, which hosts both Iraqi and foreign troops, including Americans.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but experts say they appear to have been fired from Shiite-majority areas north of Baghdad.

Last month, a rocket exploded less than a mile away from the sprawling US Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, also causing no casualties.

Iraqi security forces remove concrete blast walls leading to the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 27, 2018. (AP/Karim Kadim)

Like neighboring Iran, Iraq is a Shiite-majority country, and has been trying to maintain a fine line between allies Tehran and Washington. There have been concerns that Baghdad could once again get caught in the middle, just as it is on the path to recovery. The country hosts more than 5,000 US troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those US forces to leave.

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of Iraq to help battle the Islamic State group after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign. Iranian-backed militias fought alongside US-backed Iraqi troops against IS, gaining outsized influence and power.

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