Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy in a phone call a week ago to President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation was initially reported by an Iraqi news website as Reuters exclusively reported.
By Sunday, Washington had begun preparations to withdraw diplomatic staff if such a decision is taken, those sources and the two Western diplomats said.
The concern among the Iraqis is that pulling out diplomats would be followed quickly by military action against forces Washington blamed for attacks.
Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis, issued a statement last week pleading for groups to avoid an escalation that would turn Iraq into a battleground.
One of the Western diplomats said the U.S. administration did not “want to be limited in their options” to weaken Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Asked whether he expected Washington to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: “Strikes.”
The U.S. State Department, asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, said: “We never comment on the Secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq.”
In a region polarised between allies of Iran and the United States, Iraq is the rare exception: a country that has close ties with both. But that has left it open to a perennial risk of becoming a battle ground in a proxy war.
That risk was hammered home in January this year, when Washington killed Iran’s most important military commander, Qassem Soleimani, with a drone strike at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with missiles fired at U.S. bases in Iraq.
Since then, a new prime minister has taken power in Iraq, supported by the United States, while Tehran still maintains close links to powerful Shi’ite armed movements.
Rockets regularly fly across the Tigris towards the heavily fortified U.S. diplomatic compound, constructed to be the biggest U.S. embassy in the world in central Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone during the U.S. occupation after a 2003 invasion.
In recent weeks rocket attacks near the embassy have increased and roadside bombs targeted convoys carrying equipment to the U.S.-led military coalition. One roadside attack hit a British convoy in Baghdad, the first of its kind against Western diplomats in Iraq for years.
Two Iraqi intelligence sources suggested plans to withdraw American diplomats were not yet in motion, and would depend on whether Iraqi security forces were able to do a better job of halting attacks. They said they had received orders to prevent attacks on U.S. sites, and had been told that U.S. evacuations would begin only if that effort failed.
Two Sides To A Coin
Iraqis are concerned about the impact of November’s presidential election on the Trump administration’s decision-making.
While Trump has boasted of his hard line against Iran, he has also long promised to withdraw U.S. troops from engagements in the Middle East. The United States is already drawing down its force sent to help defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq from 2014-2017.