US to reduce staff at Baghdad embassy amid regional tensions

us-to-reduce-staff-at-baghdad-embassy-amid-regional-tensions

BAGHDAD — The U.S. is withdrawing some staff from its embassy in Baghdad, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Thursday, temporarily reducing personnel amid regional security concerns.

U.S. Ambassador Mathew Tueller said the reduction would not affect the mission’s work, adding that he will continue to carry out his duties from the embassy for the “foreseeable future.”

“I will do so with the support of a core team of American diplomats and U.S. advisers to the Iraqi military,” he said in a video statement posted on the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page on Thursday evening following local reports that the U.S. is withdrawing some Baghdad embassy staff as tensions with Iran and its allies spike.

It was not immediately clear how many personnel were to be withdrawn, nor did Tueller give any reasons.

A U.S. official, however, said the decision stems from concern about a possible Iranian retaliatory strike on the first anniversary of the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassim Soleimani, and senior Iraqi militia leaders near Baghdad’s airport in January. The killing sparked outrage and led Iraq’s parliament to pass a non-binding resolution days later calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraq.

The government later retreated from such threats, but Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi still faces pressure from Iran-aligned groups to eject U.S. forces.

The U.S. official, who was not authorized to give press statements and spoke on condition of anonymity, also cited concerns about possible Iranian retaliation for the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran last week.

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Iran has accused U.S. ally Israel of being behind the assassination. Israel, long suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the last decade, has repeatedly declined to comment on the attack.

The partial withdrawal from the embassy is taking place amid a drawdown of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan announced by the outgoing Trump administration last month. In Iraq, the U.S. plans to reduce the number of troops from 3,000 to 2,500 by mid-January, before Trump is to leave office.

An Iraqi government official said the Iraqi government was notified of a partial withdrawal of some staff from the U.S. Embassy as a “precautionary and security step.” The official said that part of the withdrawals were partly due to staff finishing their rotations and others going on leave. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

In September, the Trump administration warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government fails to take decisive action to end rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias on American and allied interests in the country.

Associated Press writer Mathew Lee in Washington contributed reporting.

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