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US decision to withdraw staff from Iraq shows Iran showdown continues

The Trump administration says there’s a serious threat against personnel in Iraq.

US Embassy Opens In Baghdad
The US flag is raised outside the US Embassy in Iraq on January 6, 2009.
Getty Images

The US has ordered a partial withdrawal of State Department employees from Iraq over apparent fears of an imminent Iranian attack.

Early on Wednesday morning, the State Department announced it would remove non-emergency employees from the US Embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil, a city in northern Iraq. That means some full-time diplomats must now leave the country, which will temporarily bring consular and other services to a halt. Other employees who are vital to everyday functions of the mission, like the cooking staff, will remain for now.

The “ability to provide routine and emergency services to US citizens in Iraq is extremely limited,” the State Department said in a statement, adding that the threat of “terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict” proved too great for most Americans to remain in Iraq for now.

That tracks with what the Trump administration has said in recent days. On May 5, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that the US had obtained credible intelligence that Iran planned attacks on US personnel in the Middle East. In order to ensure the diplomats’ safety, then, it appears the US wants to get personnel out of harm’s way — which seems like a prudent move.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made a surprise visit to Baghdad on May 7 to discuss the intelligence with Iraqi officials.

But there’s a complication: It’s unclear how real the risk actually is. A top British military official told Pentagon reporters this week that the threats weren’t extraordinary. And some say the Trump administration has inflated the severity of the intelligence, which reports indicated could include attacks on American staff in Iraq and Syria.

Which means that an important US mission in Iraq may be partially emptied based on exaggerated intelligence, partly in an effort to apply global pressure on Iran.

This move will likely make an already tense standoff even worse

The partial embassy withdrawal is the latest episode in a rapidly worsening standoff between the US and Iran.

Concerns over the recent intelligence reports led the Trump administration to send an aircraft carrier, missile batteries, and bomber planes to the Middle East last week. Iran, meanwhile, announced that it will stop abiding by parts of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — which the US fully withdrew from last year — potentially putting it on the path to obtaining a nuke.

This week, multiple oil tankers traveling through a key waterway bordering Iran said they were sabotaged. If ships can’t pass through that area safely, it could greatly disrupt the flow of trade — and oil — in the world. The US has strongly insinuated that Iran is to blame, a charge Tehran adamantly denies.

What’s more, the New York Times reported on Monday that the Trump administration is already planning for military options in case of war with Iran. The most eye-popping plan to date is the idea of sending 120,000 troops to the region — not enough to invade the country outright but enough to launch devastating attacks. President Donald Trump denies the report, saying on Tuesday that “we have not planned for that. Hopefully we don’t have to plan for that.”

Removing US diplomats is wise if there’s a serious threat to them. But the prudent move, in this climate, only signals there may be more to worry about.