US Military on Standby to Evacuate Consulate in Iraq Amid Threats from Iran

Iraqi security forces patrol in Basra, Iraq, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.  (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
Iraqi security forces patrol in Basra, Iraq, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

U.S. military forces in Iraq are standing by to help evacuate the U.S. consulate in the southern city of Basra after the State Department's recent decision to temporarily close the facility because of threats made by Iranian forces.

"If American lives are at risk, then the [Defense Department] will take prudent steps to relocate the personnel from harm," Army Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

The closure is in response to "increasing and specific threats" from the Iranian government and militias under its control, according to a Sept. 28 Associated Press report.

Basra, one of three U.S. diplomatic missions in Iraq, has been plagued by violent protests recently over government corruption and poor public services.

In mid-September, three Katyusha rockets were fired at Basra's airport, which houses the U.S. consulate, by a Shiite militia after it vowed revenge against Iraq protesters for setting fire to the Iranian consulate, the AP reported.

There were no casualties in the rocket attack, but U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman decided not to take chances and temporarily close the consulate.

"Ambassador Silliman is a great leader, and he determined that risk is not worth the reward," Ryan said. "They are just not willing to put up with that. They are diplomats; they are not warfighters, so that is the route that we are going."

He did not have a timeline for the evacuation or how many U.S. military personnel would be involved. "Like I said, American lives are at risk ... when asked, we will definitely support," he said, adding, "It's still very early in this process."

But the rocket attack near the U.S. consulate isn't the only incident involving Iran that has threatened American lives in the region.

Iran launched several ballistic Monday toward eastern Syria, targeting militants it blamed for an attack on a military parade last month, the AP reported. The missiles flew over Iraq and impacted at undisclosed locations inside Syria.

The strike came as a surprise to U.S. and coalition forces conducting operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Ryan said.

"These strikes potentially jeopardized the forces on the ground that are actually fighting ISIS and put them in danger," he said, adding that Iran made no attempt to coordinate or de-conflict with U.S. or coalition forces. "I can tell you that Iran took no such measures, and professional militaries like the coalition and the Russian confederation de-conflict their operations for maximum safety."

While U.S. forces were not near any of the missile impacts, "anytime anyone just fires missiles through uncoordinated airspace, it's a threat," he said.

In the past, Ryan has said that Iran is not known for being accurate with its missile attacks.

"I did say two weeks ago that they have bad aim," he said. "That hasn't changed, and that is actually one of the problems with Basra as well. You have folks out there shooting weapons that they may not know how to use."

The incident is under investigation, he said, stressing that U.S. and coalition forces have no interest in having Iran conduct future strikes for any reason.

"The coalition is not requesting any support," he said. "We can handle things ourselves; we don't need anyone else firing into [the] region."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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