WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Iraq's leaders that the U.S. plans to close its embassy in Baghdad unless the government stops Shiite militias from targeting diplomatic missions in Iraq, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
Pompeo delivered the warning in recent phone calls to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and to Iraqi President Barham Salih, according to two Iraqi government officials and a Western official with knowledge of the matter.
Pompeo told the Iraqi government that the U.S. would "deal" with Shiite militias if they did not stop launching attacks on diplomatic missions in the country, a senior Iraqi security official said on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to brief the media.
A withdrawal from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would be seen as a triumph by Iran and by pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, which have long called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The number of attacks targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, including U.S. logistics convoys and the heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad, has increased in recent weeks, according to the Iraqi government.
U.S. officials and regional analysts believe the attacks were carried out by Iran-backed Shiite militias. Iraq has a majority Shiite population. Tehran has denied that it is orchestrating the attacks.
Baghdad launched security measures after the Americans demanded that the Iraqi government act decisively to ensure the security of the embassy, but the response apparently was not enough to satisfy Washington, another Iraqi official said.
"We have to respond. We know that this is serious," the official said.
The Iraqi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Marine Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, praised the work of the Iraqi security forces in safeguarding U.S. interests in a recent interview.
Although he said there would always be an element of risk, "the people that really need to protect us are the Iraqis, and the Iraqis have actually done a pretty good job of that," the general said this month. His comments have not previously been published.
"They have been responsive when people have threatened the bases. They have been responsive when people have fired rockets at us. They've gone after them to find them. So that's very much appreciated," McKenzie said.
He added, "They have a responsibility to protect us."
Pompeo's stern message came after Kadhimi, the prime minister, visited Washington last month, with both sides touting the talks as positive.
'A collective duty'
In a meeting Saturday with Iraq's foreign minister, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region was a "collective duty," according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency.
Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, Washington had hoped Iraq would become a staunch ally, reflected by the vast embassy that was built during the U.S. occupation.
But Iraq has struggled to balance its relations with the U.S. and its powerful Shiite-ruled neighbor, Iran, which has retained a heavy influence since Saddam was ousted.
Washington's relations with Iraq came under severe strain after President Donald Trump ordered the killing of top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January. Iran retaliated five days later by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces.
Pompeo defended the operation as having established "real deterrence" to prevent Tehran from orchestrating future attacks on U.S. interests.
Shiite militias' firing rockets and mortars at the U.S. Embassy compound has been a long-running problem. In 2018, Pompeo closed the U.S. Consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra following attacks by Shiite militias. Iraqi government officials at the time appealed to the Trump administration to keep the consulate open.
The frequency of the attacks has increased recently, said two U.S. defense officials who were not authorized to speak on the record.
The militias typically fire 107 mm rockets and mortars, usually one to five at a time, and they have recently started to carry out the attacks several times a week, the two officials said.
"If they do enough of these, someone is going to get killed," a defense official said.
Various militia groups conduct the strikes, but all are believed to be tied to Iran in some way, whether they are directing attacks or they are just using equipment provided by Iran, the officials said.
Iran’s UN mission in New York denied it was behind the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Iraq and accused the United States of violating international law in the January drone strike against Soleimani. “Iran has always reiterated the need to maintain the security of diplomatic facilities, and leveling these false accusations is part of the U.S. campaign of lies and maximum pressure against Iran and Iraq,” said Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the mission.
In March, two U.S. service members and a British soldier were killed in a rocket attack on a military base north of Baghdad. At the time, McKenzie, the Central Command commander, said the Iran-backed militia group Kataeb Hezbollah was the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Pompeo's "private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders" but said the U.S. would "not tolerate" threats to those serving abroad and would not hesitate to take any action deemed necessary to keep personnel safe.
The spokesperson said the actions of "lawless" Iran-backed militias remained the biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq.
"It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq," the spokesperson said.
Pompeo did not respond when asked by a reporter during an official trip to Greece on Monday whether he would be closing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The diplomatic compound, which sits on a vast 100-acre site along the Tigris River, is one of America's biggest embassies.
Last week, an Iraqi Shiite political bloc, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and an influential Shiite cleric condemned attacks on foreign diplomatic missions in the country. The senior Iraqi security official said the statements had been prompted by the request from Pompeo for Shiite groups to denounce the assaults.
Douglas Silliman, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, said he repeatedly issued warnings to Baghdad officials demanding that their security forces rein in Shiite militias firing rockets at the embassy compound but with little success.
After the killing of Soleimani, the Trump administration "made it very clear publicly and privately that all it really cared about was the safety of Americans in Iraq and American casualties," said Silliman, now president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
As a result, Iran developed tactics to increase the threat facing Americans in Iraq, he said. Administration officials "have essentially pointed to [Iran] as the thing that will cause [the U.S.] the greatest pain," Silliman said.
In 2011, President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq before sending them back three years later after the extremist Islamic State group seized large swaths of Iraqi territory.
McKenzie said this month that the U.S. would reduce its troop presence in Iraq from more than 5,000 to 3,000 in September.
Closing the Baghdad embassy would not necessarily mean the U.S. troop presence there would decrease, two U.S. defense officials said. "There are no plans to decrease below 3,000 any time soon," a defense official said.
Following Soleimani's killing, the U.S. military moved thousands of additional soldiers and Marines into Iraq and the region to defend installations and diplomatic facilities.
Since then, the U.S. has reduced its numbers back down to around 5,200.