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US Orders Non-Emergency Staff to Leave Iraq Amid US-Iran Tensions

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, talks with Charge D'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Joey Hood, in Baghdad, May 7, 2019. British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, a senior officer in the U.S.-led military coalition says there is no increased threat from Iran or Syria.

VOA Persian's Shahla Arasteh contributed from Washington.

PENTAGON — The United States ordered its non-emergency employees to leave Iraq on Wednesday, a move that comes as the Trump administration warns of potential threats against American forces in the Middle East from Iran or Iranian-backed proxies.

A statement posted by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said the order applied both to staff there and at the U.S. Consulate in Irbil. U.S. embassies in Iraq, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Turkmenistan all warned American citizens to maintain a "high level of vigilance."

Germany and the Netherlands said they are suspending military training operations in Iraq, although Berlin said it had no signals of its own that a threat against Western interests in Iraq was imminent. The Dutch government cited an unspecified security threat in curtailing its training operations.

Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked that State and Defense officials brief lawmakers about the threat top government officials say that Iran poses. Graham said he has "no idea what the threat stream is beyond what I read in the paper."

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday rejected a report that he is considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran, but didn't rule out deploying "a lot more" soldiers in the future.

"I think it's fake news," Trump said of a New York Times report that the White House is considering a plan to send 120,000 troops to the region.

"Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that," Trump said.

The Pentagon has already dispatched an aircraft carrier and nuclear-capable bomber planes to the region in the last few days, with a Patriot missile battery and a landing platform dock ship on the way. The Patriot system offers protection from aircraft and missiles, while the LPD carries Marines and the aircraft, hovercraft, or boats needed to put them ashore to fight in distant places.

According to the Times report, the 120,0000 troops under consideration would not be used to invade Iran, something that planners say would require much bigger numbers.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Red Sea, May 10, 2019.
An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Red Sea, May 10, 2019.

Meanwhile, a senior officer in the U.S.-led military coalition combating Islamic State said Tuesday he had seen no greater recent threat to its troops in Iraq or Syria from forces backed by Iran.

"There's been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria," British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika told reporters at the Pentagon in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad. "We're aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them, along with a whole range of others because that's the environment we're in."

The statement was in contrast to comments from the Trump administration and the Pentagon, who have asserted for more than a week that they have detected potential threats against U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Capt. Bill Urban, lead spokesman U.S. Central Command, said the recent comment from British Maj. Gen. Ghika runs counter to the U.S.'s perceived threat from Iranian-backed forces.

"U.S. Central Command, in coordination with Operation Inherent Resolve, has increased the force posture level forall 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 U.S. forces in Iraq," Urban said in a statement.

U.S. Senate Democrat Chris Coons said it is hard to determine whether a significant, new U.S. troop deployment to the Middle East is justified. Answering a VOA Persian question at a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington on Tuesday, Coons said there has been no articulated strategy or briefing by the Trump administration to lawmakers on committees other than intelligence, regarding threats from Iran.

Coons called for continued U.S. dialogue with Washington's European allies on Iran. "I would urge the Trump administration to work as hard diplomatically as they seem to be from the defense perspective, in terms of planning and developing a strategy and communicating it to Congress and the world."

U.S. Senate Democrat Chris Coons, left, answers a VOA Persian reporter’s question at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, May 14, 2019.
U.S. Senate Democrat Chris Coons, left, answers a VOA Persian reporter’s question at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, May 14, 2019.

A senior military official told reporters at the Pentagon Friday that the Iranian threat was both "on land and sea" and included commercial dhows (small ships) that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of Iran's armed forces, loaded with "potential military hardware to include missiles."

"It's important that Iran understand that an attack on Americans or its interests will be met with an appropriate response," Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan said Friday. "We're in the Middle East to defeat terrorism, fight and build security ... but we will protect ourselves."

But when asked to square his statements with U.S. assertions that the threat to U.S. troops in Iraq from the militias is increasing, Ghika insisted he was "on exactly the same page."

"I don't think we're out of step with the White House at all," Ghika said.

WATCH: US Military prepare for confrontation

US Military Beefing Up Arsenal to Counter Potential Iran Attack
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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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