Dec 23, 2020 - World

U.S. considering closing Iraqi embassy after rocket attack

A police officer is shown sitting at a vehicle-borne machine gun after a rocket attack in Baghdad.
Iraqi police forces stand guard near the US Embassy in Baghdad on Monday, a day after several rockets were fired into Baghdad's Green Zone. Photo: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images

The United States is considering quickly closing its embassy in Baghdad after a series of rocket attacks on Iraq's Green Zone by Iranian-backed militias, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

Why it matters: The move, among several options being considered, could be a prelude to retaliation against Iran, which President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have highlighted as a state sponsor of terror. "Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over," the president tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

The latest attack occurred Sunday, when defensive interceptors stationed at the embassy shot down three rockets fired into the Green Zone. The protective enclave within the capital is where many diplomats live and the U.S. has its heavily fortified embassy.

  • An estimated eight rockets were fired overall, killing one Iraqi civilian and causing minor damage to the perimeter of the embassy complex.
  • Pompeo blamed "Iran-backed militias," saying in a statement: "The same militias targeting diplomatic facilities are stealing Iraqi state resources on a massive scale, attacking peaceful protesters and activists, and engaging in sectarian violence."
  • Embassy staff also pointed at Iran, saying in a tweet: "These sorts of attacks on diplomatic facilities are a violation of international law and are a direct assault on the sovereignty of the Iraqi government."
  • One tweet from the president showed three unexploded shells. "Guess where they were from: IRAN," he wrote. "Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq."
  • Shuttering the embassy shortly is one of several options being discussed within the Trump administration in the wake of the attack.

The big picture: The rocket volley was the latest in a string dating back to 2018. It came as the United States braced for any retaliation on the first anniversary of its drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, leader of the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

  • The administration viewed Soleimani as architect of Iranian-backed terror attacks from Iraq to northern Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. He was killed on Jan. 3, 2020, when U.S. missiles rained down on his convoy after he flew into Baghdad from Syria.
  • Five days later, Iran fired a series of ballistic missiles toward U.S. forces stationed in northern and western Iraq. They did not kill anyone but caused traumatic brain injuries to 110 troops.
  • Pompeo had threatened to close the embassy in September, and the State Department has been drawing down staff during the past month to reduce the risk they faced with the approaching anniversary.

The latest: The current commander of the Quds force, General Ismail Qaani, visited Baghdad on Tuesday and met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Axios' Barak Ravid reports from Tel Aviv.

  • According to Iraqi media reports, including from the Dajla news channel, Qaani denied to Al-Kadhimi that Iran or Iran-backed militias played any role in the latest attacks.

The backstory: The United States has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terror since 1984. The U.S. closed its consulate in Basra, Iraq, in 2018 after similar rocket attacks.

  • U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller, a career diplomat, could be relocated to either Erbil, in a Kurdish region in northern Iraq, or the Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq, if he departs Baghdad.

Editor's Note: This story was updated with President Trump's tweets related to Iran, Iran's formal designation as a state sponsor of terror, as well as the reported denial of any role in attack from Quds Force General Ismail Qaani.

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