BEIRUT — The State Department on Wednesday ordered all “non-emergency U.S. government employees” to leave Iraq amid soaring tensions with Iran, which backs proxy forces there.
It said in a statement that the announcement affects both the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Baghdad, and a consulate in the northern city of Irbil.
“Normal visa services at both posts will be temporarily suspended,” the department said. “The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq.”
The Trump administration has accused Iran of supporting “imminent attacks” on U.S. personnel in the region but provided details or evidence. Instead, it has used a burst of diplomacy and briefings to try to win support for an increasingly aggressive stance against Tehran.
Officials have spotlighted recent U.S. decisions to deploy an aircraft carrier, strategic bombers and other military assets to reinforce troops across the Middle East. They have also told reporters that further military action is on the table.
But European military allies have questioned whether the threat level against U.S. assets has shifted in recent weeks.
“We haven’t seen anything convincing yet, but tensions are definitely rising,” said one Western diplomat, who was not authorized to discuss the issue with the press and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Iran has long supported a network of proxy forces across the Middle East, backing militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen as part of a broader struggle for influence. President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of rolling back that sway, and his national security adviser, John Bolton, is a longtime advocate of boxing Tehran into a corner.
Tehran has described growing pressure from Washington as “psychological warfare” aimed at regime change. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his Twitter account Tuesday, to warn against further escalation.
“We don’t seek a war, nor do they,” he said. “They know a war wouldn’t be beneficial for them.”
Led by Shiite Muslim clerics, Iran commands significant influence among certain political and military quarters in Iraq, backing clerics and politicians, as well as some of the Shiite militias with which the United States was once at open war. More recently, the two have formed part of an uneasy alliance in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State.
The United States has about 5,000 military personnel stationed in Iraq, following years-long battles to defeat the Islamist militants there. With the Islamic State caliphate officially defeated, there have been growing calls among Iraqi lawmakers for American troops to depart.
There are few indications, however, that such a decision is likely to come down in the near future, and the U.S.-led coalition continues to lead airstrikes and ground operations against Islamic State holdouts, particularly north of Baghdad.
The State Department’s order for the withdrawal of non-emergency personnel from U.S. embassy and consular facilities came days after it warned American citizens not to travel to Iraq.