U.S. pulls non-es­sen­tial staff from Iraq amid ten­sions


The U.S. on Wed­nes­day or­dered all non-es­sen­tial govern­ment staff to leave Iraq, and Ger­many and the Nether­lands both sus­pended their mil­i­tary as­sis­tance pro­grams in the coun­try in the lat­est sign of ten­sions sweep­ing the Per­sian Gulf re­gion over still-un­spec­i­fied threats that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion says are linked to Iran.

Re­cent days have seen al­le­ga­tions of sab­o­tage tar­get­ing oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emi­rates, a drone at­tack by Ye­men’s Ira­nian-al­lied Houthi rebels, and the dis­patch of U.S. war­ships and bombers to the re­gion.

At the root of this ap­pears to be U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion a year ago to pull the U.S. from Iran’s nu­clear deal with world pow­ers, em­bark­ing on a max­i­mal­ist sanc­tions cam­paign against Tehran. In re­sponse, Iran’s supreme leader is­sued a veiled threat Tues­day, say­ing it wouldn’t be dif­fi­cult for the Is­lamic Repub­lic to en­rich ura­nium to weapons-grade lev­els.

The move­ment of diplo­matic per­son­nel is of­ten done in times of con­flict, but what is driv­ing the de­ci­sions from the White House re­mains un­clear. A high-rank­ing Bri­tish general said there was no new threat from Iran or its re­gional prox­ies, some­thing im­me­di­ately re­but­ted by the U.S. mil­i­tary’s Cen­tral Com­mand, which said its troops were on high alert, without elab­o­rat­ing.

Last week, U.S. of­fi­cials said they had de­tected signs of Ira­nian prepa­ra­tions for po­ten­tial at­tacks on U.S. forces and in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East, but Wash­ing­ton has not spelled out that threat, and an alert on the web­site of the U.S. Em­bassy in Baghdad said that all non-es­sen­tial, non­emer­gency U.S. govern­ment staff were or­dered to leave Iraq right away un­der State De­part­ment or­ders.

The U.S. in re­cent days has or­dered the USS Abra­ham Lin­coln air­craft car­rier strike group to the Gulf re­gion, plus four B-52 bombers.

Ger­many’s mil­i­tary said it was sus­pend­ing train­ing of Iraqi sol­diers due to the ten­sions, although there was no spe­cific threat to its own troops in Iraq. Defence Min­istry spokesman Jens Flos­dorff said Ger­many was“ori­ent­ing it­self to­ward our part­ner coun­tries” though there are “no con­crete warn­ings of at­tacks against Ger­man tar­gets.”

In the Nether­lands, state broad­caster NOS said its 50-per­son mil­i­tary mis­sion in Iraq was halted “un­til fur­ther or­ders,” quot­ing a Defence Min­istry spokesman as say­ing he couldn’t elab­o­rate on the threats. It said the Dutch forces pri­mar­ily train Kur­dish forces fight­ing the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

The re­marks about Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram by Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei came Tues­day night in Tehran at an if­tar, the tra­di­tional din­ner Mus­lims have when break­ing their daily fast dur­ing Ramadan. His com­ments first fo­cused on play­ing down the risk of a wider con­flict with Amer­ica.

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