U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned Iraqi leaders that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad would close and all diplomats removed unless Iraq reins in on attacks by Iranian proxy militias on American military and diplomatic sites. The embassy is located inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Secretary Pompeo hasn’t commented publicly on that report. Yet, a State Department spokesperson said in a statement that they don’t comment on private meetings the Secretary has with foreign leaders. However, the statement specified that the United States “will not tolerate threats to our men and women serving abroad.”
“We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remain the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq,” the statement added. “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.” The statement specified that these Iranian-backed militias are “the single biggest deterrent” to the U.S. ensuring financial support for Iraq.
This warning comes on the heels of reports that American intelligence had picked up indications of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Politico reported that it spoke with three sources with knowledge of the situation. Reportedly, Matthew Tueller, the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, had told Iraqi officials that the U.S. has become aware of a direct threat to an American target. The exact target of the attack or the location is still unknown.
On Sunday, Ahmed Mulla Talal, the spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi, told reporters that Iraq hopes the U.S. “will reconsider” its decision. “There are outlaw groups that try to shake this relationship and closing the embassy would send a negative message to them,” he added. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein traveled to Tehran and reportedly discussed the issue with Iran’s leadership.
However, Politico reported that according to Defense Department sources inside the Pentagon, the threat to pull out of Baghdad was more of a bluff to force Iraq to act.
The threatened embassy closure could prove a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could send the message to the Iranians that the constant attacks by their proxies on U.S. diplomatic and military facilities have been successful. This, in turn, could provoke further attacks.
On the other hand, it could signal that if intelligence regarding an impending attack is serious enough, the door opens for a heavy U.S. response. Additionally, it is possible that if U.S. diplomats were to leave, American military forces would feel freer to use airstrikes and other means to hit the Iran-backed proxy militias without the fear of reprisals against diplomatic staff, as it happened in January.
A common misconception being reported, regarding the January strike against Soleimani, is that Iranian-led militias only attacked U.S. assets with ballistic missiles after the American drone strike that killed Iranian MG Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad’s airport. Yet, the strike against Soleimani was conducted after more than three dozen attacks against American interests, including the U.S. Embassy. Iranian-led militias had made it clear in words and in actions that they were going to continue to attack U.S. interests in Iraq until the U.S. leaves the Middle East.
It was only after the Soleimani killing that Shiite members of the Iraqi government criticized the U.S. for “violation of Iraq’s sovereignty” and called for all U.S. forces to be expelled from the country. However, they were continually turning a blind eye to the militia attacks that were killing U.S. coalition members as well as Iraqi security troops.
Attacks by Iranian proxy militias haven’t decreased. Rather, they’ve been increasing with militias now launching mortar attacks and 107mm Katyusha rockets at American interests several times a week.
The Iranian-led militias threatened Prime Minister Kadhimi not to undertake any further actions against the militias.
Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haqthe militia, which is part of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) said, “Your government is a temporary government with two specific goals: early election… and addressing the economic and health challenges. Don’t create any other issues and don’t get involved in other issues that might happen. Otherwise, you might lose everything.” He then admitted what the militias have been denying for months, that they were indeed behind the attacks on the American troops.
“You want to resolve the attacks by the resistance factions against the U.S. forces, but you could never do that. None of the previous governments could do that and none of them took such an action. Instead, they were all ignoring this issue because they knew they couldn’t touch it,” Khazali threatened.
His threat was echoed by Asaib Ahl al-Haqthe’s political allies.
It is a risky move that could backfire on the administration but could force the Iraqi government to address the militia issue that many Iraqi citizens now support.