US shuts Basra Consulate while Iraq says country remains safe

The State Department announced on Friday the temporary closure of the US consulate in Basra.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - The State Department announced on Friday the temporary closure of the US consulate in Basra.

Late on Thursday, rockets were fired at the Basra airport, where the consulate is located, for the second time this month. The following day, the State Department issued a statement announcing its decision to place the consulate on “ordered departure.” The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story, quoted a senior administration official as saying the US would “close” the consulate and evacuate its diplomats.

“Staff who depart Basra” will return to the US, “in accordance with standard practice,” a State Department official explained to Kurdistan 24.

The announcement was accompanied by a warning to US citizens: “Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism and armed conflict.”

“US citizens in Iraq are at high risk for violence and armed conflict,” the State Department cautioned.

Yet, a senior Iraqi security official told The Washington Post, “We are not aware of any intention by Iran or its friends in Iraq to attack American diplomats or the consulate.”

On Saturday, a spokesman for Iraq’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing regret at the US decision to withdraw its consular staff and issue the travel warning.

“Iraq is committed to protecting foreign diplomatic missions,” as well as visitors to the country, the spokesman affirmed. He also sought to reassure other countries that Iraq was capable of protecting their facilities, diplomats, and citizens.

The precise reasons for the US decision, which ABC News said was “made hastily,” are unclear. Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador in Iraq alongside Gen. David Petraeus, from 2007-2009, during the “surge,” told ABC, “I don’t think that the rocketing per se would be a reason” for closing the consulate. “We got rockets dropped on our head every other week,” Crocker said.

“Threats to our personnel and facilities in Iraq from the Government of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] Quds Force, and from militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qasim Soleimani have increased over the past several weeks,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed in a written statement.

On Thursday, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, reported that a recent intelligence assessment had concluded that Iranian-backed proxy forces “could be planning a strike against US military forces or interests in the Middle East.”

The particular concern, she said, was “militias located in Syria and several other locations in the Middle East.”

Tensions between the US and Iran have been rising as Washington implements a tough new policy aimed at stopping Iran’s malign behavior over a range of issues, what National Security Adviser John Bolton described on Tuesday as a “maximum pressure campaign.”

Washington has already imposed one set of sanctions on Tehran and more are to take effect on November 5, targeting Iran’s oil and financial sectors.

Tensions were further fueled by a terrorist attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on September 22, as Tehran marked the 38th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Some 25 people were killed, including 12 IRGC members.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility and then released a video of what it said were three of the four attackers, preparing for the assault. However, the video’s authenticity is impossible to verify, and an Ahvazi liberation group also claimed responsibility.

For its part, Tehran blamed Saudi Arabia and the UAE for providing support to the individuals who carried out the attack, and behind the two Arab states, the US.

“All of those small mercenary countries that we see in this region are backed by America,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said. “It is Americans who instigate them and provide them with the necessary means to commit these crimes.”

A generation of Americans vividly recalls the humiliation and assaults that followed the Iranian revolution. They include the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, in which 52 US diplomats were held hostage for 444 days: from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981—the day Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter as US president. 

Some two years later—on October 23, 1983, the new, revolutionary regime in Iran, in combination with Syria’s Baathist regime, carried out an attack on the barracks of an international force, sent as peacekeepers to Lebanon, killing 241 US Marines, along with 58 French Paratroopers.

Some 104 foreigners, many of them Americans, were taken hostage in Lebanon in the decade between 1982 and 1992, ostensibly by various shadowy groups, but in reality by the same Iranian-Syrian combination that attacked the US and French troops.

At its low point, the Reagan administration was actually trading arms for hostages in the hope of reaching out to moderates in Tehran.

The recollection of those events may be a factor behind the decision to close, at least temporarily, the Basra consulate. However, Michael Pregent, who served as an advisor on Iran’s activities in Iraq to Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno during Operation Iraqi Freedom, suggested to Kurdistan 24 that the decision was ill-advised.

“Soleimani sees the closing of the Basra consulate as a sign of weakness,” Pregent said in an emailed statement. “His proxies will be encouraged to step up mortar and rocket attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad.”

Editing by Nadia Riva