17 October 2018
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U.S. to Close Consulate in Iraq, Citing Threats From Iran

Saturday, 29 September 2018 22:28
Demonstrators waving Iranian and pro-Iranian party flags during a protest earlier this month in the southern Iraqi city of Basra against the torching of Iran’s consulate there. Demonstrators waving Iranian and pro-Iranian party flags during a protest earlier this month in the southern Iraqi city of Basra against the torching of Iran’s consulate there.

WASHINGTON—The State Department will close the U.S. consulate in Basra, Iraq, and evacuate the diplomats stationed there, citing security risks from Iran, according to administration officials.

The U.S. post in the southern Iraqi city, one of three U.S. diplomatic missions in the country, will be shuttered following mounting, credible threats from Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, a senior administration official said.

Mr. Pompeo also warned Iran in messages sent through diplomatic channels that the threats are unacceptable, the senior administration official said, while underscoring that the U.S. had nothing to do with a deadly attack last weekend on an Iranian military parade in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz.

Hours before the decision to close the consulate, rockets or mortars landed some 300 yards from the building with no reported injuries, according to the official, in the latest direct aggression against the facility.

In addition to evacuating an unspecified number of government officials and contractors from the Basra consulate, the State Department also updated its travel advisory for Iraq, noting that “anti-U.S. sectarian militias may also threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq.”

Mr. Pompeo called it a “temporary relocation” due to the security threats and warned Iran in a statement that the U.S. would Tehran responsible for any harm to Americans or U.S. diplomatic facilities for attacks by “Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias.”

On Saturday, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi called the reason for closing the U.S. consulate “a laughable justification, which came after days and weeks of propaganda and predictions and baseless accusations against Iran and Iraqi forces.”

The closing of the Basra consulate comes as the administration is imposing tough sanctions to try to roll back Iran’s assertive posture in the Middle East and ratchets up its rhetoric against the Iranian regime.

“Bottom line, if we are attacked we’ll respond,” the senior official said, adding that if Iran-backed groups attack the U.S., the U.S. would hold Iran accountable. “We’ll respond swiftly and effectively, and it will not be at proxies.”

 The decision to close the consulate followed weeks of unrest in the southern Iraqi city triggered by residents’ anger over meager electricity supplies and impure water, which made thousands of people ill.

Earlier this month, protesters set fire to the Iranian consulate in Basra and rockets were fired at the American consulate, located near the airport on the outskirts of town.

The Iraqi government has been notified of the decision, the senior administration official said.

“The Iraqi government is committed to the safety of all diplomatic missions in Iraq and considers an attack on any of them as an attack on the government itself,” said a senior Iraqi official.

The official said steps have been taken to strengthen security around the Basra airport, where the U.S. consulate is located, including the deployment of troops from Iraq’s CounterTerrorism Service, its elite fighting force.

The White House had warned earlier this month that Iran would be accountable for attacksagainst U.S. government facilities in Iraq by Shiite militia groups that Iran supports, though officials noted at the time there was no concrete evidence that Tehran had ordered the rocket fire.

But the senior administration official said the evidence pointing to Iran’s role and that of its paramilitary Quds Force has recently become more firm.

“The totality of the information available to us leads us to the conclusion that we must attribute ultimate responsibility to the Iranian government, the Quds Force and the proxy militias under the direct command and control of the Quds Force,” the senior administration official said.

Among the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias representing a danger to U.S. personnel are Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujaba, the official said.

One official said senior U.S. diplomats in Iraq debated with officials in Washington over whether to close the consulate, arguing that the move would embolden Iranian proxies to escalate attacks in other locations to try and force Americans elsewhere to leave the country. The official said the consulate had remained open in the past under what could have been considered worse conditions.

The State Department rebutted this account, saying those officials “were in complete agreement with the secretary of state’s decision,” said Heather Nauert, department spokeswoman.

 The U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil will remain open.

Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, sits atop substantial petroleum reserves. While it provides a large share of the country’s oil revenue, residents of the city have long complained that they do not get adequate levels of government services.

This summer, when temperatures remained in the triple-digits, city residents often experienced electricity blackouts and complained of brackish, undrinkable tap water. As protests escalated, the Iraqi central government sent troops to the city and imposed a curfew. A number of protesters have died in the months of unrest.

The White House earlier this month blamed Iranian-backed Iraqi militias for firing rockets at the U.S. consulate facility which caused no injuries. The administration has not provided evidence to support those charges.

Before those attacks, top Iraqi Shiite militia commander Abu Mehdi al-Mohandis, who is designated a terrorist by the U.S. government and who is aligned with Iran, blamed the U.S. for inciting protests in the city that led to the burning of the Iranian consulate. Twitter shut down his account, saying he was inciting violence.

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