The Trump administration is removing about half of its diplomats from the Baghdad embassy in Iraq amid heightened tensions with Iran, Politico reported on Wednesday. The staff reduction is said to be temporary and comes after the assassination of a prominent Iranian scientist.
Iraqi officials told AFP the move was being made out of security concerns. “It’s a minor drawdown based on security reservations from the US side. They could come back — it’s just a security blip,” one source said.
The US embassy was the site of frequent rocket attacks that ramped up after the US assassinated Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January. Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a group of mostly Shia Iraqi state-sponsored militias formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. The killing enraged the Shia militias inside Iraq.
In October, the Shia militias announced a ceasefire with the US in the hopes it would lead to a withdrawal. The truce was announced by Kataib Hezbollah, a militia seen as having close ties to Iran. While some Shia factions have said the ceasefire with the US is over, Kataib Hezbollah and Iran are both keen to avoid a confrontation with the US.
After a report came out that said President Trump reviewed options to strike an Iranian nuclear site, Iran urged its allies in Iraq not to provoke tensions with Washington. Sources told Middle East Eye that a top Iranian military officer, Brigadier General Ismail Qaani, delivered the message himself.
“Qaani made it clear that Trump wants to drag the region into an open war before leaving, to take revenge on his opponents over losing the election, and it is not in our interest to give him any justification to start such a war,” a top commander of a Shia militia in Iraq told Middle East Eye.
The same day the US announced a troop drawdown in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500 in November, rockets were fired at the US embassy in Baghdad. Kataib Hezbollah denied responsibility. The Washington Post quoted a spokesman for the group who said they were urging restraint in a story published on Saturday. “The US is retreating here. Why would it be in our interests to bomb them?” said spokesman Mohammed Mohie.
But other factions have their own reasons to attack the US. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, responded to the Iranians call for restraint in a TV interview. “The Americans occupy our country, not yours. We will not listen to you anymore because our motives are 100 percent nationalist. The truce with the Americans has ended due to its conditions not being met,” he said.
Since Asaib Ahl al-Haq is a Shia militia, if they attack the US, it will naturally be blamed on Iran. Other groups in Iraq could stand to gain from provoking a war between Iran and the US, like ISIS, who celebrated the US assassination of Soleimani.