c.2019 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — The State Department ordered a partial evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday, responding to what the Trump administration said was a threat linked to Iran, one that has led to an accelerated movement of U.S. ships and bombers into the Persian Gulf.
The department ordered “nonemergency U.S. government employees,” at both the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil, to leave the country. The order applies primarily to full-time diplomats posted to Iraq by State Department headquarters in Washington, and an embassy statement said that visa services in Iraq would be suspended as a result. Contractors who provide security, food and other such services will remain in place for now.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that the administration had received intelligence related to “Iranian activity” that put U.S. facilities and service personnel at “substantial risk.” Other American officials have said the same piece of intelligence points to potential attacks by Shiite Arab militias tied to Iran against U.S. troops in Iraq or Syria.
Iraqi officials have voiced skepticism about the threat described by the Americans, and on Tuesday, so did the British deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, or ISIS.
“No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, speaking from Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon by video link. There are threats in the region to United States and coalition forces, he said, referring to “noncompliant actors” among the militias, but “there always have been.”
The Pentagon’s Central Command released a statement saying that Ghika’s comments “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” and that as a result, United States forces in Iraq were “now at a high level of alert.”
Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad on May 7 to brief Iraqi leaders about the threat.
On Friday, the Pentagon said it was sending another ship and a Patriot anti-missile battery to the Middle East.
Tensions with Iran have been rising since May 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal that world powers reached with Tehran. The United States then reinstated major sanctions last November, and those have weakened the Iranian economy.