Threat to evacuate US diplomats from Iraq raises fear of war

The United States has made preparations to withdraw diplomats from Iraq after warning Baghdad it could shut its embassy, two Iraqi officials and two Western diplomats say, a step Iraqis fear could turn their country into a battle zone.

Any move by the US to scale down its diplomatic presence in a country where it has up to 5,000 troops would be widely seen in the region as an escalation of its confrontation with Iran, which Washington blames for missile-and-bomb attacks.

That, in turn, would open the possibility of military action, with just weeks to go before an election in which US President Donald Trump has campaigned on a hard line towards Tehran and its proxies.

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.

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 Iraqis is that pulling out diplomats would be followed quickly by military action against forces Washington blamed for attacks.

Populist Iraqi leader Muqtada 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 US 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 US 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.”

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