US pulls staff from Iraq, citing security threats from Iran

By Zachary Cohen, Elise Labott and Barbara Starr, CNN

The State Department announced Friday that it has ordered all non-essential personnel leave the US consulate in Basra, Iraq.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited threats from Iran in a statement and a senior US official told CNN that the decision to place the facility on “ordered departure” was prompted by “security threats from Iran.”

“US Embassy Baghdad will continue to provide consular services to US citizens in Basrah.” the State Department said in a statement.

The State Department also updated its travel advisory for Iraq Friday to note the order.

“Threats to our personnel and facilities in Iraq from the Government of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, and from militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani have increased over the past several weeks,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Pompeo noted that “there have been repeated incidents of indirect fire from elements of those militias directed at our Consulate General in Basrah and our Embassy in Baghdad, including within the past twenty-four hours.”

“I have advised the Government of Iran that the United States will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to Americans or to our diplomatic facilities in Iraq or elsewhere and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias,” he said.

CNN also reported on Thursday that a US intelligence assessment conducted in recent days has concluded that Iranian-backed militias and proxy forces could be planning a strike against US military forces or interests in the Middle East, according to three defense officials.

Officials would not describe the specific intelligence, but in addition to monitoring public statements from Iran, the US intelligence community is capable of using overhead satellites and communication intercepts.

Using proxies could make it difficult for US intelligence to readily identify targets to strike.

But Pompeo, in a recent CNN interview, made it clear Iran’s use of militias and proxies throughout the Middle East could provoke a US military response if US interests come under attack. “They’re going to be held accountable. If they’re responsible for the arming and training of these militias, we’re going to go to the source.”

A spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq said Friday that the military was tracking “two points of impact from strikes near the US Basra Diplomat Consulate, but nothing was hit and no injuries. No one has taken credit for this unsuccessful attempt,” Col. Sean Ryan told CNN early Friday morning.

On Thursday, multiple residents in Basra told CNN that rockets were fired towards Basra International Airport in the very early hours of Friday, but that they neither struck inside airport grounds nor the US Consulate which is located near the airport.

National security adviser John Bolton’s issued a stark warning to Iran at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”

On Wednesday, while hosting a meeting on non-proliferation, President Donald Trump added a warning.

“Any individual or entity that fails to comply will face severe consequences,” he said.

Bolton said that the Trump administration is also implementing measures to specifically target Soleimani, who heads the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“The Trump administration has launched a pressure campaign to counter Soleimani’s insidious design,” Bolton said.

Responding to Trump’s comments on Wednesday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that the US is the problem: an isolated violator of international laws led by a team of political and diplomatic novices that is earning the world’s disapproval.

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