US orders ‘non-emergency government employees’ to leave Iraq

Directive comes as tensions between the US and neighbouring Iran ratchet up as US military forces head to the Gulf.

All non-essential American government staff were ordered out of Iraq on Wednesday as tensions between the United States and Iran continue to rise. 

Germany and the Netherlands suspended military training in Iraq, Iran’s neighbour to the west, citing escalating security risks in the Gulf.

The US State Department ordered the departure of “non-emergency government employees” from Iraq, it said in a statement. The US embassy in Baghdad advised those employees to leave Iraq by commercial transportation “as soon as possible.”

“Normal visa services at both posts will be temporarily suspended. The US government has limited ability to provide emergency services to US citizens in Iraq,” the State Department said, referring to the embassy and the US consulate in Erbil.

On Tuesday, US Central Command warned in a statement that Iranian-backed forces presented “credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq”, without disclosing further details.

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group in Iraq and Syria was now at a “high level of alert”, it said.

Rising tensions

The alerts come amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran. The US military has deployed forces – including an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers – to the Middle East in a move American officials said was to counter “clear indications” of threats from Iran to its troops in the region.

On Sunday, the embassy advised Americans to avoid travel to Iraq, citing “heightened tensions”.

Washington has applied new sanctions pressure on Tehran after pulling out the landmark nuclear deal involving Iran and world powers, which curbed the Islamic Republic’s atomic weapons programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

The US last month also blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a “terrorist group“.

The fast-moving developments have raised concerns that a conflict could break out between US and Iranian forces. However, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday there would be no war

More tense

US concerns about escalating danger posed by Iran did not appear to be shared by all of Washington’s allies. Major-General Chris Ghika, a British spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said on Tuesday there had been “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria”.

The German government, meanwhile, said its military suspended training of Iraqi soldiers because of the security situation in the region between the US and Iran.

German Defence Ministry spokesperson Jens Flosdorff told reporters in Berlin that Germany is “orienting itself toward our partner countries, which have taken this step”.

But he stressed “there is no concrete threat” and the decision is down to the security situation, in general, being viewed as more tense.

Germany currently has about 160 German soldiers in Iraq as part of the fight against ISIL, about 60 of them at a base north of Baghdad where Iraqi forces are being trained.

The Dutch government also suspended a mission in Iraq that provides assistance to local authorities, the Dutch news agency ANP reported on Wednesday.

Dutch military personnel help train Iraqi forces in Erbil, northern Iraq, along with other foreign troops. The report gave no details about the nature of the threat.

War fears

Al Jazeera’s Rob Mattheson, reporting from Baghdad, said the tensions had prompted worries among Iraq’s people about the consequences of any US-Iran conflict.

“The Iraqis are watching this with growing concern, worrying that in a standoff between the US and Iran they are going to be caught in the middle,” he said.

The US has about 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq and about 2,000 in Syria as part of the campaign against ISIL.

It also has a variety of air and naval forces stationed in Bahrain, Qatar, and elsewhere in the Gulf, partly to support military operations against ISIL and partly as a counter to Iranian influence in the region.

On Wednesday, Iran said it would officially stop fulfilling some commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal following an order from its national security council, ISNA news agency reported.

An official in the country’s atomic energy body told ISNA that Iran now would not limit its production of enriched uranium and heavy water.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies