A U.S. measure to reduce diplomatic presence in a country with up to 5,000 troops is said to be a escalation of a confrontation with Iran, a state accused by Washington of carrying out rocket and bomb attacks.
This would open up the possibility of military action, just weeks before the US election in which President Donald Trump promoted a tough line against Iran and its neighbors.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened to close the embassy in a telephone conversation a week ago with Iraqi President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation information was originally published by an Iraqi news site.
Until Sunday, Washington began preparations for the withdrawal of diplomatic staff, for the eventuality in which such a decision will be taken, said these sources and the two western diplomats.
The concern among Iraqis is that the withdrawal of diplomats would be quickly followed by military action against forces that Washington has accused of attacks.
Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has millions of Iraqi followers, issued a statement last week calling on the parties to avoid escalation that would turn Iraq into a battlefield.
One Western diplomat said the US administration “does not want to be limited in its options” to weaken Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Asked if Washington is expected to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: “Attacks.”
Asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, the US State Department said: “We never comment on the secretary’s private diplomatic talks with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching missiles at our embassy are a danger not only to us.” but also for the Iraqi government. “
In a region polarized between Iran’s allies and the United States, Iraq is an exception: a country with close ties to both sides. But this puts the country at constant risk of becoming a battleground in a war of proximity.
This risk was highlighted in January this year, when Washington killed Iran’s most important military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone attack at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with rockets fired at US bases in Iraq.
Since then, a new prime minister has taken power in Iraq, backed by the United States, while Tehran continues to maintain close ties with strong Shiite armed movements.
Missiles are frequently launched across the Tigris to the heavily fortified US diplomatic campus, built to be the largest US embassy in the world in the so-called green zone of Baghdad, during the US occupation after the 2003 invasion.
In recent weeks, rocket attacks near the embassy have increased, and roadside bombs have targeted convoys carrying equipment to the US-led military coalition.
A road attack has struck a British convoy in Baghdad, the first of its kind against Western diplomats in Iraq in recent years.
On Monday, three children and two women were killed when two militia missiles hit a family home, the Iraqi army said. Police sources said the airport in Baghdad was the intended target.
Two sources in the Iraqi intelligence sector have suggested that plans to withdraw US diplomats have not yet been launched and depend on the ability of Iraqi security forces to stop the attacks. They said they had received orders to prevent attacks on US sites and were told that US evacuations would only begin if the effort failed.
Iraqis are worried about the impact of the November presidential election on the Trump administration’s decision-making process.
While Trump boasted of his tough line against Iran, he has long promised to withdraw US troops from Middle East commitments. The United States is already withdrawing its forces from 2014-2017 to help defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq.