Amid escalating tensions with Iran, the U.S. State Department has ordered that all non-emergency personnel leave Iraq "as soon as possible" over concerns about threats posed by Iranian-backed forces in the area.
"The U.S. State Department has ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. Government employees from Iraq, both at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil," the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Iraq announced in a security alert on Wednesday. "Normal visa services at both posts will be temporarily suspended. The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq."
The embassy provides the following list of "actions to take":
- Depart Iraq by commercial transportation as soon as possible
- Avoid U.S. facilities within Iraq
- Monitor local media for updates
- Review personal security plans
- Remain aware of surroundings
- Review the complete Travel Advisory for Iraq
- Visit our website for Travel to High-Risk Areas
Reuters notes that the call for non-emergency personnel to immediately leave the country comes as the U.S. Military has "reaffirmed concerns about possible imminent threats from Iran to its troops in Iraq."
"A U.S. State Department spokesman said the decision to withdraw non-emergency staff was based on a security assessment, but would not give details on how many personnel were leaving," the news agency reports.
"Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel and citizens is our highest priority and we are confident in the Iraqi security services' (ability) to protect us," the spokesman said. "But this threat is serious and we want to reduce the risk of harm."
Iranian officials have dismissed the U.S. response as an attempt at "psychological warfare," while the Iraqi prime minister said he has heard that discussions between the U.S. and Iran were progressing positively and would likely "end well."
But the actions of both countries suggest otherwise. The U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the area, while The New York Times reported Monday that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan recently presented "an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons." The Times notes that the revised plan was "ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton" and that they "do not call for a land invasion of Iran."
Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, Trump dismissed the Times report as "fake news," NBC News reports, but then added: "Would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. And if we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that."
Citing unnamed U.S. officials, NBC reports that the plan to deploy as many as 120,000 troops represents a "worst-case scenario contingency" should the U.S. and Iran go to war. "Under this scenario, 120,000 would be the sum total of U.S.troops already in the region, plus additional forces that would be deployed, mainly in the form of air forces and naval power, according to the officials," the network reports.