That, in turn, would open up the possibility of military action, just weeks away from the election in which US President Donald Trump campaigned hard on Tehran and its proxies.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy during a phone call a week ago to President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation was originally reported by an Iraqi news website.
Washington had started to prepare for the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel if such a move was made on Sunday, the sources and the two Western diplomats said.
The concern of the Iraqis is that the withdrawal of diplomats would quickly be followed by military action against the forces that Washington accused of attacking.
Iraqi populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis, issued a statement last week calling for the groups to avoid an escalation that would turn Iraq into a battleground.
One of the Western diplomats said that the US administration did not “want to be limited in its options” to weaken Iran or the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. When asked if he expected Washington to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: “Strikes”.
The US State Department, when asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, said: “We never comment on the secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our embassy represent a danger not only for us but for the government of Iraq. ”
Earlier this month, the US military said it would reduce its presence in Iraq to 3,000 troops from 5,200.
The Pentagon said on Monday it was determined to support Iraq’s “security, stability and prosperity” for the long term and that US military operations against the armed group ISIL (ISIS) continued.
In a region polarized between the allies of Iran and the United States, Iraq is the rare exception: a country with close ties to both. But that left him open to a permanent risk of becoming a battleground in a proxy war.
That risk was hammered home in January this year, when Washington killed Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani with a drone strike at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with missiles fired at US bases in Iraq.
Since then, a new prime minister has taken power in Iraq, backed by the United States, while Tehran still has close ties to powerful Shiite armed movements.
Rockets routinely cross the Tigris towards the heavily fortified US diplomatic complex, built to be the world’s largest US embassy in the so-called “green zone” of central Baghdad during the US occupation following a 2003 invasion.
In recent weeks, rocket attacks near the embassy have escalated and roadside bombs have targeted convoys carrying supplies to the US-led military coalition.
A roadside attack hit a British convoy in Baghdad, the first of its kind against Western diplomats in Iraq in years.
On Monday, three children and two women were killed when two militia rockets hit a family home, the Iraqi military said. Police sources said Baghdad airport was the target.
Two Iraqi intelligence sources suggested that plans to withdraw US diplomats were not yet underway and would depend on the ability of Iraqi security forces to better stop the attacks.
They said they received orders to prevent attacks on US sites and were told that US evacuations would only begin if this effort failed.
Double edged sword
Iraqis are concerned about the effect of the November presidential election on the decision-making of the Trump administration.
While Trump has bragged about his hard line against Iran, he has also long vowed to withdraw US troops from their engagements in the Middle East. The United States is already reducing its forces sent to help defeat ISIS fighters in Iraq from 2014 to 2017.
Some Iraqi officials have called Pompeo’s threat to withdraw diplomats a boast, designed to scare armed groups into stopping attacks. But they said it could backfire and provoke the militias instead, if they see an opportunity to push Washington to withdraw.
“The American threat to close their embassy is only a means of pressure, but it is a double-edged sword,” said Gati Rikabi, member of the Iraqi parliamentary security committee.
He and another member of the committee said the US measures were aimed at scaring the Iraqi leadership into supporting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who tried to control the power of Iran-aligned militias, without success.
Falcons on both sides
The militias are under public pressure to curb supporters who could provoke Washington. Since last year, Iraqi public opinion has been fiercely opposed to political groups seen as promoting violence on behalf of Iran.
Publicly, the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups that control large factions in parliament have attempted to distance themselves from attacks on Western targets.
U.S. officials have said they believe militias or their Iranian backers have created dissident branches to carry out such attacks, allowing major organizations to evade responsibility.
A senior official from a Shiite political party said he believed Trump might want to remove diplomats to put them out of danger and avoid an embarrassing pre-election incident.
The militia attacks were not necessarily under Tehran’s control, he said, noting that the Iranian foreign ministry had publicly called for an end to attacks on diplomatic missions in Iraq.
“Iran wants to drive the Americans out, but not at any cost. He does not want instability on his western border, ”said the Shiite leader.
“Just as there are hawks in the United States, there are hawks in Iran who are in contact with the groups that carry out attacks, which do not necessarily follow state policy.