US to withdraw some Baghdad embassy staff as Iran tensions simmer

Move will follow anniversary of Qassem Suleimani's assassination on January 3

A general view of the U.S. Embassy at the Green zone in Baghdad, Iraq January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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In its final weeks before the transfer of power, the Trump administration has decided to withdraw some staff from the US embassy in Baghdad, officials said.

The move was "a temporary de-risking" that will follow the January 3 anniversary of the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, Iran's most senior military general, by drone strike in Baghdad, a source told The Washington Post.

The number of staff being withdrawn was unclear, the source added.

No group has claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks that have targeted the embassy so far this year but Washington believes Tehran-backed militias are behind them.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened to withdraw the US embassy from Iraq to pressure Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi to further crack down on Iranian-backed militias.

A State Department official did not comment on specific staff drawdowns from the US embassy in Baghdad but said these changes are adjusted in line with the local security environment.

"The State Department continually adjusts its posture at embassies and consulates throughout the world in line with its mission, the local security environment, the health situation and even the holidays," the official told The National.

The official did not deny the reports and stressed that "ensuring the safety of US government personnel, US citizens and the security of our facilities remains our highest priority."

US ambassador Matthew Tueller will remain in Iraq and the embassy will continue to operate, the official said.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington are mounting.

Last week, Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in Tehran.

Iran has blamed his death on Israel and the US and has vowed to avenge it.

In recent months, the Trump administration has been increasing pressure on Iran, hitting it with sanctions that have crippled its economy.

But President-elect Joe Biden, who comes into power in January 20, has said he will return the US to a nuclear accord between Iran and other countries before quickly launching talks on other issues, reviving diplomacy to ease soaring tensions.

Suleimani was killed in Iraq in retaliation for an attack by Iran-backed militias on the US embassy in late 2019.

On December 29, US air strikes hit weapons depots and command and control centres of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most influential Iran-backed militia groups, across Iraq and Syria.

Kataib Hezbollah's leader and founder, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, was killed alongside Suleimani.