The Trump administration is threatening to shutter the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and has begun serious internal discussions about how to relocate its diplomatic presence from Baghdad to nearby Amman, Jordan or the northern Kurdish city of Erbil, Iraq. It’s also possible some staff could be relocated to Anbar province in Iraq.
The threat to abandon one of the largest and most expensive American diplomatic missions in the world has raised concerns among U.S. allies that the move could destabilize the relatively young Iraqi government led by new Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi.
Others fear that the U.S. is creating the conditions for a potential military strike against Iranian-linked Shiite militias who are believed to be linked to rocket attacks.
The U.S. does not believe that Iran is looking for confrontation before the November 3 elections, but the risk of action by its proxies is still an ongoing concern.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has imposed conditions on the Iraqis requiring them to increase security around American diplomatic and military installations and stop permitting rocket attacks by Shiite militias, which threaten U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq. The U.S. and European allies have observed that the Shiite militias are no longer under the same type of clear command-and-control structure as they once were under al Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani, who was in January in Baghdad that also took the life of Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis.
The justification for the threat to withdraw diplomats while leaving a U.S. military footprint of roughly 3,000 U.S. troops would be to eliminate some of the threat posed by the rocket attacks being carried out by the Iran-linked militias. But the U.S. and Iran compete for influence in Iraq, and the sudden departure of American diplomats from their post in Iraq could, on its face, be perceived as a victory for Tehran.
Unless an immediate threat surfaces that could trigger an emergency exit, such as the death of an American, the planning at this point remains preliminary and would not likely be executed until after the U.S. election. The threat alone to pullout creates pressure on Baghdad to take action. As one U.S. official put it, “if we are forced to leave, there will be a price to pay.”
Two senior diplomatic sources confirmed to CBS News that the specific demands include beefing up security at the airport in Baghdad and clearing out any Kata’ib Hezbollah-affiliated individuals from inside the Green Zone, the protected area in Baghdad where the Iraqi government and foreign entities including the U.S. Embassy are located. In addition, the U.S. wants the thousands of Shiite fighters from within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) who remain loyal to Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al Sistani to be folded into the official military of Iraq. The first allegiance of those fighters is believed to be to Iraq and not Iran.
The most direct message from the U.S. was simply for Baghdad to stop permitting the rocket attacks that may threaten U.S. convoys, bases and personnel.
Multiple diplomats pointed out to CBS News that the public threats by the Trump administration make it politically difficult for the Iraqi government to comply with the demands without looking like it is bending to U.S. whims.
In what appears to be a diplomatic “Hail Mary” and an attempt to provide more wiggle room for Baghdad to take these measures, the U.K. ambassador to Iraq today posted a statement to his Twitter account in which 25 countries plus the European Union called on the prime minister to take further measures to improve conditions in Baghdad by strengthening the forces inside the Green Zone. The statement noted broad concerns about recent rocket and IED attacks posing a threat to all countries.