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 told NBC News on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to brief the media.
A withdrawal from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad will be seen as a triumph in Iran and by pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, which have long called for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
The number of attacks targeting American interests in Iraq, including the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Baghdad and U.S. logistics convoys, 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 it is orchestrating the attacks.
After the Americans demanded that the Iraqi government take decisive action to ensure the security of the embassy, Baghdad launched security measures 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.
Despite the warnings from Washington, 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 with NBC News.
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 told NBC News earlier this month. His comments were not previously 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 Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi visited Washington last month, with both sides touting the talks as positive.
In a meeting on Saturday with Iraq’s foreign minister, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the withdrawal of American troops 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 U.S. ally, reflected by the vast U.S. embassy that was built during the American 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 afterward as establishing “real deterrence” against Iran 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, after 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 recently increased, say two U.S. defense officials who were not authorized to speak on the record.
The militias typically fire 107mm rockets and mortars, usually between one to five at a time, and 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,” one defense official said.
There are various militia groups conducting the strikes but all are believed to be tied back to Iran in some way, whether they are directing attacks or the groups are just using equipment provided by Iran, the officials said.
Iran’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.
In March, two American service members and a British soldier were killed in a rocket attack on a military base north of Baghdad. At the time, Gen. McKenzie 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 the secretary of state’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 added that the actions of “lawless” Iran-backed militias remained the single 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 sits on a vast 100-acre site along the Tigris River and 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 told NBC News the statements had been prompted by the request from Pompeo for Shiite groups to denounce the assaults.
Douglas Silliman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016-19, said he repeatedly issued warnings to Baghdad officials during his tenure demanding 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 [Iran] at the thing that will cause [the U.S.] the greatest pain,” the former ambassador said.
In 2011, President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq before sending troops back three years later after the extremist Islamic State group seized large swathes of Iraqi territory.
Earlier this month, Gen. McKenzie said the U.S. would reduce its troop presence in Iraq from more than 5,000 troops to 3,000 in September.
If the Baghdad embassy closes, that does not necessarily mean the U.S. troop presence there will decrease, two U.S. defense officials said. “There are no plans to decrease below 3,000 any time soon,” one 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.