The US State Department has ordered the evacuation of all non-emergency government employees from Iraq after citing an “imminent threat” from Iran.
Senior State Department officials defended the move as a “prudent” step, citing a “high risk for violence and kidnapping” in the region.
“It is a prudent thing we did this,” a senior State Department official said on Thursday during a briefing with reporters.
US President Donald Trump’s administration is applying new sanctions on Tehran and sending additional forces to the Middle East to counter what it says is a heightened threat from Iran to US soldiers and interests in the region.
Iran calls that “psychological warfare”, and a British commander cast doubt on US military concerns about threats to its roughly 5000 soldiers in Iraq, who have been helping local security forces fight Islamic State jihadists.
The US State Department said on Wednesday night that employees at both the US embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, were being pulled out immediately due to safety concerns.
It was unclear how many personnel were affected, and there was no word on any specific threat. Visa services were suspended at the heavily-fortified US missions.
“Ensuring the safety of US government personnel and citizens is our highest priority … and we want to reduce the risk of harm,” a State Department spokesman said.
A senior State Department official quoted by CNN refused to confirm whether the US embassy was specifically targeted, but said that in the department’s experience, “the people out to get us do not make a distinction between diplomatic and military targets”.
“We’ve seen them go after multiple targets of multiple flavours,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, Germany, which has 160 soldiers in Iraq, suspended military training operations, citing increasing regional tensions. And the Netherlands suspended a mission providing assistance to Iraqi local authorities, the Dutch news agency ANP said.
Both the US and Iran have said they do not want war, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday he had indications “things will end well” despite the rhetoric.