Trump pulling dozens of diplomats out of Iraq

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The Trump administration is pulling out as many as half of America’s diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as tensions spike with Iran ahead of the first anniversary of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general.

The staff reduction, confirmed by a U.S. official and a State Department official, is in theory supposed to be temporary. But given the steep downward trajectory of U.S.-Iran relations in the final months of President Donald Trump’s tenure, it’s not clear when fuller staffing will resume.

The staff reduction also is a sign of the many tests awaiting President-elect Joe Biden in the Middle East, a region his foreign policy team is downplaying as it eyes what it sees as the greater, more urgent challenge posed by the rise of China.

The U.S. official said as many as half of the American staff at the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic facilities in Iraq would be leaving, characterizing that as “dozens” of people. The State Department official declined to offer specifics beyond confirming a staff reduction was underway.

Last month’s killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior Iranian scientist who led elements of the country’s nuclear program, has fueled already high tensions between Washington and Tehran. Israel, a close U.S. ally, is suspected of being behind Fakhrizadeh’s death. Next month also will mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. airstrike that killed one of Iran’s most powerful military leaders, Qassem Soleimani, as he visited Iraq.

Iran has threatened retribution for both men’s deaths.

Iraq has long been the scene of proxy fighting between the United States and Iran, making it a viable location for Iran to carry out revenge attacks. In the days following Soleimani’s death, Iran rained missiles at locations housing U.S. troops in Iraq, leading dozens to suffer traumatic brain injuries.

Earlier this year, angered by rocket attacks and other threats from Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq, the Trump administration threatened to shut down its massive, heavily fortified embassy in Iraq completely. That has yet to come to pass, but the threats have alarmed Iraqi leaders who have struggled to balance their relationships with America and Iran.

The State Department rarely offers exact information about staffing levels at its various outposts. Pressed Wednesday, the department declined to specifically confirm that a staff reduction was in the works but did not deny it.

“The State Department continually adjusts its diplomatic presence at embassies and consulates throughout the world in line with its mission, the local security environment, the health situation, and even the holidays,” a department official said in a statement. “Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel, U.S. citizens, and the security of our facilities, remains our highest priority.”

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, is remaining at the post, the official said in the statement.

The Washington Post first reported that the U.S. would be reducing the staff Wednesday afternoon.

The Trump administration also is continuing to impose new sanctions on Iran, even in these final weeks of the president’s term. The sanctions are designed to further undermine the regime there as well as make it harder for Biden to return the United States to the Iran nuclear deal.

The deal, which was negotiated under the Obama administration but which Trump abandoned in 2018, had lifted many sanctions on Tehran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program.

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