US Partly Evacuates Iraq Embassy After Accusing Iran of Escalating Tensions

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
May 15, 2019 Updated: May 15, 2019

The Trump administration ordered the withdrawal of all non-emergency personnel from the U.S. diplomatic mission to Iraq after the administration announced Iran or its proxies in the region were an escalating threat.

Helicopters took off throughout the day from the vast embassy compound near the Tigris River, carrying staff out, according to an Iraqi source and a diplomatic source inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. The Iraqi source said U.S. staff were headed for a military base at Baghdad airport.

An alert on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said all nonessential, non-emergency U.S. government staff were told to leave Iraq immediately under State Department orders. That includes those working at the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The U.S. Consulate in Basra has been closed since September following a rocket attack blamed on Iranian-backed militias.

“Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel and citizens is our highest priority … and we want to reduce the risk of harm,” a State Department spokesman said.

Unclear Reasons

The administration declined to specify what specifically prompted the staff withdrawal, but defense and security officials have warned in recent weeks there were “escalatory indications and warnings” and a “credible threat” posed by Iran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told media on May 6 that “it is absolutely the case that we’ve seen escalatory action from the Iranians,” but he also said he couldn’t be more explicit.

The U.S. announced May 5 that it was sending a bomber group and a carrier strike group to the region, although the strike group already was scheduled to pass through the region at some point anyway.

On May 14, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels launched a coordinated drone attack on a critical oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest rival in the region.

Anwar Gargash, the minister of foreign affairs for the United Arab Emirates, told reporters in Dubai that the Saudi-led coalition will “retaliate hard” for attacks on civilian targets, without elaborating.

Saudi Aramco, the government-controlled oil company, said it temporarily shut the pipeline and contained a fire, which caused minor damage to one pumping station. It added that its oil and gas supplies were unaffected.

Four tankers—two Saudi, one Emirati, and one Norwegian—were attacked on May 12 near the Strait of Hormuz by unidentified saboteurs. Unnamed U.S. officials told Reuters that Iran encouraged the Houthis or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry out the attacks.

One source said the United States believes Iran’s role has been one of actively encouraging militants to undertake such actions and went beyond simply dropping hints. However, the source indicated the United States does not currently have evidence that Iranian personnel played any direct operational role.

Iran denied involvement, though it has repeatedly threatened to block the strait, through which streams about a fifth of world’s oil shipments, if the United States tries to stop Iran from exporting oil.

The Trump administration recently declined to renew waivers from U.S. sanctions to major importers of Iranian oil as part of an effort to force Teheran to negotiate on ceasing a range of activities, including its nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as supporting terrorists and militants across the region.

“I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter on May 15.

Trump quit the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and gradually reimposed sanctions on the country.

In April, Trump announced that he would designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization—the first time the United States has marked a branch of a foreign country’s military as such.

‘On the Cusp’

Both the United States and Iran stated they don’t want war, but the IRGC commander said on May 15 that it was “on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy,” the Iranian Fars news agency reported.

“This moment in history, because the enemy has stepped into the field of confrontation with us with all the possible capacity, is the most decisive moment of the Islamic revolution,” said Major General Hossein Salami.

The IRGC is directly controlled by the Islamic regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Salami was named its head last month.

Last week, Iran notified non-U.S. signatories of the nuclear deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK—of its decision to halt some commitments under the nuclear deal.

Under the deal, Tehran was allowed to produce low-enriched uranium within about a 660-pound limit, and produce heavy water with a stock capped at around 130 tons. Tehran could ship the excess amounts out of the country for storage or sale.

Iran no longer recognizes the limit for production of enriched uranium and heavy water, an informed official in the country’s atomic energy body told the ISNA news agency on May 15.

Iran’s initial moves do not appear to violate the nuclear deal yet. But Iran has threatened that unless the world powers protect Iran’s economy from U.S. sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium at a higher level.

The European Union and the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Britain said they were still committed to the deal but would not accept ultimatums from Tehran.

US in Iraq

Iraq is one of the only countries that has close relations with both the United States and Iran. It has said it will keep strong ties with Iran, and also with both the United States and regional Arab neighbors, some of whom, like Saudi Arabia, consider Tehran an archrival.

The United States keeps about 5,000 soldiers in Iraq, who have been helping Iraqi security forces fight ISIS terrorists. While ISIS has been stripped of all its territory in Iraq, it still controls thousands of fighters and conducts terrorist attacks.

Four Iraqi federal police officers were killed on May 15 in an armed attack on their military vehicle some 25 miles southwest of the disputed oil city, Kirkuk, according to a local security source.

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple dictator Saddam Hussein, occupying the country until 2011, and then sending troops back in 2014 to help fight ISIS, which was quickly spreading its self-proclaimed caliphate over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Iran has close ties to powerful Iraqi political parties and supports powerful Shi’ite militia groups.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.