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US orders embassy personnel to leave Iraq

The US yesterday ordered all non-emergency personnel at the US Embassy in Baghdad to leave the country.

Visas services were also temporarily halted at the embassy, in the midst of rising tensions between the US and Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi officials last month that American intelligence showed Iran-backed militias had moved missiles closer to bases where US forces are present.

A senior Iraqi military source with knowledge of Pompeo’s trip told Reuters: “The message from the Americans was clear. They wanted guarantees that Iraq would stop those groups threatening US interests. They said if the US were attacked on Iraqi soil, it would take action to defend itself without coordinating with Baghdad.”

Speaking after talks in Russia with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Pompeo said the US “fundamentally” does not seek a conflict with Iran. In similar comments, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, said: “We don’t seek a war, nor do they.”

The UK Ministry of Defence appeared to back up the words of Major-General Christopher Ghika, who was rebuked by US Central Command on Tuesday. Ghika played down the threat from Iranian-backed Shi’a militia groups in Iraq to reporters in a videolink briefing from Baghdad. He said: “We’re aware of that presence, clearly. And we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in … it’s important to say that many of them are compliant and we have seen no change in that posture since the recent exchange between the US and Iran. And we hope and expect that that will continue.”

The US Central Command responded to Ghika’s comments, saying: “Recent comments from OIR’s [Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve] deputy commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”

The Ministry of Defence said in response: “Maj-Gen Ghika speaks as a military officer in the US-led coalition focused on the fight against Daesh [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria. His comments are based on the day to day military operations and his sole focus is the enduring defeat of Daesh.” But the Ministry of Defence added that he made clear in his briefing that: “There are a range of threats to American and coalition forces in this part of the world … the UK has long been clear about our concerns over Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region.”