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State Department orders non-emergency employees to leave Iraq amid Iran tensions

Updated 7:20 AM ET, Wed May 15, 2019

Washington (CNN) - The State Department ordered the departure of non-emergency US government employees from Iraq Wednesday amid increasing tensions with Iran.

Senior State Department officials defended the move as a "prudent" step amid what they say is an "imminent threat" from Iran.

"It is a prudent thing we did this," one senior State Department official during a briefing with reporters.

Earlier Wednesday, the State Department announced in a statement that non-emergency employees at the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Erbil were being ordered to leave, and that "normal visa services will be temporarily suspended at both posts." US citizens had already been warned against traveling to the country and were advised on Wednesday to "depart Iraq by commercial transportation as soon as possible."

A State Department spokesperson said that they do not discuss personnel numbers or operational details for security reasons, but that "Mission Iraq will continue vigorous diplomatic engagement in Iraq." It is expected that most US personnel will remain in Iraq following the ordered departure. The departure is expected to take several days.

The senior State Department official wouldn't say whether the embassy was specifically targeted, but said that in their experience, "the people out to get us do not make a distinction between diplomatic and military targets."

"We've seen them go after multiple targets of multiple flavors," they said.

The official said that the threat involves multiple Iranian-backed militia groups. They noted the escalation and threat reporting is reminiscent of what was seen in Iraq in 2011 following the withdrawal of US troops.

A separate senior State Department source told CNN the intelligence has also led the US to bulk up its security at embassies across the Middle East. The US has not sent new officials to the region, but it has ramped up its existing footprint with the resources already on the ground, the source added.

The senior State Department official downplayed the potential for military action in Iran, telling reporters that "every single contact I have had with the most senior people in the US government indicates that there is absolutely no desire or interest in a military conflict with anybody." On Monday, the New York Times reported that the White House was reviewing a military plan that would send as many as 120,000 US troops to the Middle East in the event that Iran strikes American forces in the region or speeds up its development of nuclear weapons.

Wednesday's ordered departure is the latest move from the US in response to what US officials have told CNN was "specific and credible" intelligence that suggested Iranian forces and proxies were planning to target US forces.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday denied any incongruity in his administration's approach to Iran, tweeting that "different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision - it is a very simple process."

"All sides, views, and policies are covered. I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon," he wrote.

A second State Department official, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said "it would be an act of gross negligence" not to take "necessary precautions" in the region.

That official said that in his conversations in Brussels earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked European allies "to use their influence with the Iranian regime to explain that they need to de-escalate."

"That's the message, that was the request," they said. A third senior State Department officials said this was brought up in Russia as well.

The announcement of the departure comes on the heels of an unannounced trip to Iraq by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.

While there, Pompeo said he spoke to Iraqi officials "about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it's able to adequately protect Americans in their country."

One of the officials said the departure was not related to dissatisfaction with the Iraqis and another noted that the US had consulted extensively with the Iraqi government.

The orders from the State Department come a day after US Central Command, which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, said in a statement that the Pentagon has increased the threat risk for US troops in Iraq and Syria.

"US Central Command, in coordination with Operation Inherent Resolve, has increased the force posture level for all service members assigned to OIR in Iraq and Syria. As a result, OIR is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq," US Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, said in a statement Tuesday.

Urban's statement also pushed back against comments made earlier Tuesday by the deputy commander of the US-led military coalition against ISIS, UK Major Gen. Chris Ghika, who said "there has been no increased threat from Iranian backed forces in Iraq and Syria."

They also come following the department's decision to cancel a diplomatic security worldwide conference it was set to host next week in Washington, DC. With the threat levels so high, the department did not want to pull security personnel out of the field as the optics would have looked bad, the senior State Department source said.

The conference is attended by more than 400 security personnel from the department, including leaders from the domestic field offices, headquarters and overseas. The gathering happens about every three to four years and is now not expected to happen until 2020.


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