U.S. pulls nonessential staff from Iraq amid Mideast tensions

BAGHDAD (AP) — 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.

An alert on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said all nonessential, nonemergency U.S. government staff were ordered to leave Iraq right away under State Department orders. That includes those working at the U.S. Consulate in Irbil. The U.S. Consulate in Basra has been closed since September following a rocket attack blamed on Iranian-backed militias.

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.

Tehran is threatening to resume higher enrichment on July 7 if no new nuclear deal is in place, beyond the 3.67 percent permitted by the current deal between Tehran and world powers.

Iranian officials have said that they could reach 20 percent enrichment within four days. Though Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90 percent threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to around 20 percent.

“Achieving 20 percent enrichment is the most difficult part,” Khamenei said, according to the newspaper. “The next steps are easier than this step.”

It was a telling remark from the supreme leader — Iran is not known to have enriched beyond 20 percent previously and it’s unclear how far Tehran is willing to go in this process. Khamenei has final say on all matters of state in Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, speaking in Tokyo on Thursday, said Iran was committed to an international nuclear deal but the escalating U.S. sanctions were “unacceptable.”

On Tuesday, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels launched a coordinated drone attack on a critical oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest rival in the region. It was the latest incident to shake global energy markets, as authorities allege oil tankers anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were targeted by sabotage. Benchmark Brent crude rose to $72 a barrel in trading Wednesday, an increase of over 1 percent.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are at war with Saudi Arabia and are believed by the West to receive weapons from Iran, said they launched seven drones targeting vital Saudi installations. That included two pumping stations along its critical East-West Pipeline, which can carry nearly 5 million barrels of crude a day to the Red Sea.

Anwar Gargash, the minister of foreign affairs for the United Arab Emirates, told reporters in Dubai that the Saudi-led coalition will “retaliate hard” for attacks on civilian targets, without elaborating.

Saudi Aramco, the government-controlled oil company, said it temporarily shut down the pipeline and contained a fire, which caused minor damage to one pumping station. It added that Saudi Aramco’s oil and gas supplies were unaffected.

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