The State Department on Wednesday ordered all non-critical government employees to leave Iraq and warned American citizens not to travel to the country over fears that growing tensions between the Trump administration and neighboring Iran could spark a conflict endangering them.
In a statement announcing the decision, officials cited a “high risk for violence and kidnapping” and said “normal visa services will be temporarily suspended” at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. consulate in Erbil. Some employees in Baghdad “will continue to provide consular services to U.S. citizens in Basrah,” the statement said.
The move comes a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced trip to Baghdad, meeting with Iraqi officials and discussing the “importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country.”
Pompeo said he made the visit also to warn Iraq about U.S. intelligence that suggested Iran was planning strikes on U.S. forces in the country.
“We don’t want anyone interfering in their country, certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq, and there was complete agreement,” Pompeo said. “These were attacks that were imminent, these were attacks that were going to happen fairly soon. We’ve learned about them and we’re taking every action to deter them.”
The U.S. deployed four bombers as well as the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier-strike group to the Persian Gulf last Thursday amid fears that Iran was transporting short-range ballistic missiles in the region.
Acrimony between the U.S. and Iran has been increasing since April, when the U.S. officially designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization and Pompeo announced an end to the exemptions from U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil and gas that eight countries had been granted.
U.S. Central Command, responsible for Middle Eastern operations, said in a statement Tuesday that troops are “now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq.”