US will close Iraq embassy unless government secures Green Zone, sources say

Warning from Washington comes after months of increased attacks on diplomatic missions

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The US is prepared to close its embassy in Iraq unless urgent action is taken to halt attacks on the mission and American soldiers, sources in Baghdad told The National.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy during a call a week ago to President Barham Salih, Iraqi government sources told Reuters.

The news was confirmed to The National by sources close to the Iraqi government, who said that no final decision has been made but regarded the US warning to be serious.

Washington has already begun preparations to withdraw diplomatic staff if the move is made, Reuters said.

The sources said reports that diplomats may relocate to the relative safety of Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region were untrue and a closure would mean embassy staff leaving Iraq.

Washington blames Iran-backed militias for firing rockets at its embassy on a near-weekly basis for months, and for shelling Iraqi bases housing international troops, including many of the 5,000 US soldiers.

A rocket landed near Baghdad airport on Monday night killing three civilians and wounding two, security officials said.

FILE - The U.S. Embassy is seen from across the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq Jan. 3, 2020. The Trump administration has signalled it will begin to take measures to close its diplomatic mission in Baghdad if measures are not taken to control rogue armed elements responsible for a recent spate of attacks, Iraqi officials and Western diplomats said on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, sending the Iraqi leadership into a tailspin amid fears of impending diplomatic crisis. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
The US embassy in Baghdad from across the Tigris River. AP file

The last rocket attack on the US embassy was nearly 10 days ago, when a Katyusha fell inside the Green Zone, causing no injuries or damage.

The sources say Washington is seeking clear and tangible action from the government of Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi to end the attacks and hold perpetrators to account.

After Mr Pompeo’s call, Iraqi sides have been engaged in high-level consultations on how to meet the US demands.

Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, followed by millions of Shiites in the country, last week proposed a joint committee with the government, Parliament and security forces to look at halting attacks on diplomats.

FILE - In this Dec 31, 2019  file photo, pro-Iranian militiamen and their supporters damage property inside the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq. The Trump administration has signaled it could close its diplomatic mission in Baghdad if measures are not taken to control rogue armed elements responsible for a recent spate of attacks against U.S. and other interests in the country, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
Pro-Iranian militiamen and their supporters damage property inside the US embassy compound. AP file

At the heart of the US proposal was the security of the heavily fortified Green Zone.

It houses embassies including the American mission, which was built to be the biggest US outpost in the world, the Iraqi Parliament and other official buildings.

While Washington recognises that the rocket attacks are coming from outside the cordon, they point to “thousands” of Iran-backed militiamen based within its confines.

The US wants the paramilitaries removed by the government, state security to strengthen defences around the area and more reliable troops to be posted there.

“They said there can be no long-term solution without an end to the impunity for attacks as well as armed groups,” one Iraqi source said.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 02, 2020 Iraqi counter-terrorism forces stand guard in front of the US embassy in the capital Baghdad after hundreds of men stormed the high-security Green Zone and besieged the US compound. As Iraqi Prime Mininister Mustafa al-Kadhemi prepares for his first meeting with US President Donald Trump this week, attacks on American targets by pro-Iranian fighters have been on the rise. With Tehran and Washington competing for influence in Iraq, the gulf between pro-Iranian factions and the US-friendly premier Kadhemi is growing.
Iraqi counter-terrorism forces stand guard in front of the US embassy in Baghdad on August, 8, 2020. AFP

A western diplomat from a US ally said that there was support for Mr Al Sadr’s proposal and clear action was needed.

"The prime minister needs the active support of all the main political leaders to be able to tackle the security threats from rogue militia groups," the diplomat said.

The US ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, on Monday discussed ways to strengthen security co-operation with Iraq’s National Security Adviser, Qasim Al Araji.

Protesters and militias try to storm US embassy  

The US ambassador confirmed Washington’s support for Baghdad’s anti-terrorism operation and said it would provide assistance in “overcoming current challenges”.

After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, the Green Zone was established to provide a secure haven from the turmoil to allow diplomats to work and the Iraqi state to start rebuilding.

But in 2019, then prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi allowed the Popular Mobilisation Forces militias, officially part of the state security apparatus but under control of only the government, into the area.

Many of the security walls have since been removed to open the zone, long seen as symbolising Iraqi leaders' detachment from the public.

A general view of the U.S. Embassy at the Green zone in Baghdad, Iraq January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
The US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Reuters

US officials are concerned that these PMF groups are helping to co-ordinate the attacks on US positions.

The attacks, usually claimed by little known militia factions, have increased since January when a US drone strike killed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani and PMF leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in Baghdad.

It is not only the US that has been attacked. A British diplomatic vehicle hit a roadside bomb on the way to Baghdad airport this month. A UN convoy was also attacked recently.

After Suleimani's death, thousands of protesters tried to storm the embassy until the US posted reinforcements and Iraq sent in the Golden Division to secure the area.

The move to close the embassy could mark the start of a more aggressive US stance towards Iranian groups in the region, diplomats say.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has taken a tough line on Iran, withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear accords, placing sanctions on dozens of officials and companies, and killing Suleimani, who oversaw Tehran's regional armed proxies.

The warning came weeks before the US presidential election on November 3, a sensitive time in which American officials worry that Iran may try to increase attacks.

One western diplomat said the US change could lead to strikes and that Washington did not “want to be limited in their options” to pressure Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.

Iraqi MP Jaber Al Jaberi said that the US closing its embassy could lead other countries to follow.

Sources said up to 12 other diplomatic missions rely on the "US-provided security umbrella” to operate in the country.

“Other European countries will follow their direction and close their embassies," Mr Al Jaberi said. "Iraq will be in the same scenario as Yemen."

Rockets attacks on US interests in Iraq must be stopped, said Sarkwat Shams, another Iraqi MP.

“It will be a disastrous diplomatic failure for us and the US," Mr Shams said. "Militias are threatening Iraq before they threaten the US."