US pulls nonessential staff from Iraq amid Mideast tensions
BAGHDAD — The U.S. on Wednesday ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq, and Germany and the Netherlands both suspended their military assistance programs in the country in the latest sign of tensions sweeping the Persian Gulf region over still-unspecified threats that the Trump administration says are linked to Iran.
Recent days have seen allegations of sabotage targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack by Yemen's Iranian-allied Houthi rebels, and the dispatch of U.S. warships and bombers to the region.
At the root of this appears to be President Donald Trump's decision a year ago to pull the U.S. from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran. In response, Iran's supreme leader issued a veiled threat Tuesday, saying it wouldn't be difficult for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.
The movement of diplomatic personnel is often done in times of conflict, but what is driving the decisions from the White House remains unclear. A high-ranking British general said there was no new threat from Iran or its regional proxies, something immediately rebutted by the U.S. military's Central Command, which said its troops were on high alert, without elaborating.
Last week, U.S. officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East, but Washington has not spelled out that threat, and an alert on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said that all nonessential, nonemergency U.S. government staff were ordered to leave Iraq right away under State Department orders.
The U.S. in recent days has ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf region, plus four B-52 bombers.
Germany's military said it was suspending training of Iraqi soldiers due to the tensions, although there was no specific threat to its own troops in Iraq. Defense Ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff said Germany was "orienting itself toward our partner countries" though there are "no concrete warnings of attacks against German targets."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer expressed concern over the tensions and said it welcomes "any measure that is aimed at a peaceful solution." Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said the German government has not reduced its embassy staff in Iraq or Iran.
In the Netherlands, state broadcaster NOS said its 50-person military mission in Iraq was halted "until further orders," quoting a Defense Ministry spokesman as saying he couldn't elaborate on the threats. It said the Dutch forces primarily train Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State militants.
The remarks about Iran's nuclear program by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came Tuesday night in Tehran at an iftar, the traditional dinner Muslims have when breaking their daily fast during Ramadan. His comments first focused on playing down the risk of a wider conflict with America.
He told senior officials that his country won't negotiate with the U.S., calling such talks "poison," but he also said, "Neither we, nor them is seeking war. They know that it is not to their benefit," according to the state-run IRAN newspaper.
Tehran is threatening to resume higher enrichment on July 7 if no new nuclear deal is in place, beyond the 3.67% permitted by the current deal between Tehran and world powers.
Iranian officials have said that they could reach 20% enrichment within four days. Though Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90% threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to around 20%.