Iraqis concerned after US signals it could close embassy

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Trump administration has signaled it could close its diplomatic mission in Baghdad if measures are not taken to control rogue armed elements responsible for a recent spate of attacks against U.S. and other interests in the country, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Monday.

A U.S. official said the warning was clear and given to both Iraq’s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about diplomatic discussions.

There should be “no confusion” among Iraqi leaders about how seriously the U.S. takes the threat to its personnel and property, the official said.

The threat to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital, which stoked concerns on the part of Iraqi officials of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo said that if the U.S. presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a “strong and violent” response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call.

On Saturday, Pompeo went a step further, telling Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi that the U.S. will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy. The Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

An official announcement has not been made by the Americans.

In a tangible sign of a strain in U.S.-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days.

Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to U.S. dollars.

Despite comments from U.S. officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months’ time to take action.

“America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months,” one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, al-Kadhimi’s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the U.S.-led coalition or else, “aggressive” action would follow, the official said.

Iraq’s leadership is feeling the heat.

Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions.

So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone.

The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq’s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the U.S. ahead of the November federal election.

“We expect large crowds,” said one official of the protests. “And we expect it will impact American thinking.”

Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the U.S. has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment.

Closing the facility is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats.

Diplomats were told the U.S. had already started the process of closing but would “re-evaluate while progressing,” one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved.

The State Department declined to comment on the calls between Pompeo and Iraq’s leadership, but said the U.S. will not tolerate threats, in a statement.

“We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remains the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq. It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq,” it added.

Meanwhile, attacks targeting convoys continue.

On Monday, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying materials destined for U.S. forces southwest of Baghdad, two Iraqi security officials said. It was the third attack in 24 hours, with IED attacks in Babylon and Dhi Qar provinces targeting similar convoys. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

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Lee reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed from Boston.

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