US pulls embassy staff from Iraq as Iran warns of ‘full-scale confrontation’

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The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards says this is “the most decisive moment of the Islamic revolution”.

Washington has ordered the departure of “non-emergency employees” from Iraq, and the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned of a possible “full-scale confrontation”, as tensions between the US and Iran continue to rise.

Key points:

  • Netherlands and Germany suspend military training operations in Iraq
  • The United States has sent military forces to the Middle East in a show of force against Iran
  • Both the United States and Iran have said they do not want war

The US State Department said employees at both the US embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, were being pulled out immediately due to safety concerns.

“Ensuring the safety of US Government personnel and citizens is our highest priority … and we want to reduce the risk of harm,” a State Department spokesman said.

Iran nuclear deal at a glance

Iran nuclear deal at a glance

The main points in the 2015 deal aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

It was unclear how many personnel were affected, and there was no word on any specific threat, but visa services were suspended at the heavily fortified US missions.

Following the US announcement on Wednesday, the commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said, “We are on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy,” the Fars news agency reported.

“This moment in history, because the enemy has stepped into the field of confrontation with us with all the possible capacity, is the most decisive moment of the Islamic revolution,” said Major General Hossein Salami, who was named head of the force last month.

The United States has sent further military forces to the Middle East, including an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles, in a show of force against what US officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests in the region.

Iran’s top security body dismissed this as “psychological warfare.”

Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Germany, which have 160 soldiers in Iraq, suspended military training operations, citing increasing regional tensions.

Threats to US interests

A wide shot sees fighter jets parked on an aircraft carrier's runway as another navy ship sails by in the background

During a visit to Iraq earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi commanders that intelligence showed Iran-backed paramilitary fighters were positioning rockets near bases housing US troops, according to Iraq security sources.

“The message from the Americans was clear. They wanted guarantees that Iraq would stop those groups threatening US interests,” one of the sources told Reuters news agency.

“They said if the US were attacked on Iraqi soil, it would take action to defend itself without coordinating with Baghdad.”

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump’s administration has applied new sanctionspressure on Tehran and sent additional forces to the Middle East to counter what it says is a heightened threat from Iran to US soldiers and interests in the region.

But a British commander cast doubt on US military concerns about threats to its roughly 5,000 soldiers in Iraq, who have been helping local security forces fight Islamic State jihadists.

‘Miscalculation could lead us into conflict’

Both the United States and Iran have said they do not want war, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday he had indications “things will end well” despite the rhetoric.

Iraq has said it will keep strong ties with Iran, but also with the United States and regional neighbours, some of whom, like Saudi Arabia, consider Tehran an arch-rival.

“I think we are now in a quite dangerous situation where a miscalculation by either side could lead us into conflict,” US senator Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN in an interview on Wednesday.

“When you project force into a very volatile region and you’ve got real tension between Iran and the Saudis — we have to be careful. We need a strategy,” Mr Coons said, echoing a call by Congress for the Government to brief lawmakers.

The State Department reissued travel advisory for Iraq saying US citizens were at high risk of violence and kidnapping.

“Anti-US sectarian militias may also threaten US citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq,” it said.

A senior Iranian official said on Wednesday that any conflict in the region would have “unimaginable consequences.”