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U.S. tells Iraq that it may pull out of Baghdad embassy

Beirut — The United States has told the Iraqi government and its diplomatic partners that it's planning a full withdrawal from its embassy in Baghdad unless Iraq reins in attacks on personnel linked to the American presence there — a move that Iraqi officials said caught them by surprise.

"We hope the American administration will reconsider it," Ahmed Mulla Talal, a spokesman for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said Sunday. "There are outlaw groups that try to shake this relationship, and closing the embassy would send a negative message to them."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Kadhimi of the plans Saturday night, according to an official familiar with the matter. Two Western officials in Baghdad said their country's diplomatic missions had been informed of the plan.

It was unclear Sunday whether the White House had signed off on a possible departure and what might prompt the Trump administration to shelve the plan. If the administration moves forward, closing the embassy is expected to take 90 days, a window that would give Washington the opportunity to reassess the decision, said a diplomat familiar with the situation.

An Iraqi official said the U.S. government asked for stronger action against militants, suggesting that a shutdown could be averted if that occurred.

A spokeswoman for the State Department declined to comment on Pompeo's "private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders" but underscored U.S. frustrations with "Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy."

She said such attacks "are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq, neighboring diplomatic missions, and residents of the former International Zone and surrounding areas."

President Donald Trump's decision to order the killing of senior Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad International Airport in January sparked a firestorm in Iraq, where lawmakers urged the expulsion of U.S. troops. Iran-backed militia groups ramped up a campaign of rocket and small-scale bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi military bases that host U.S.-led coalition troops.

Two U.S. servicemen, a Briton and several members of Iraq's security forces have been killed this year in rocket attacks attributed to the militias. In recent months, small-scale bomb attacks have also targeted convoys linked to the U.S.-led coalition. Iraqi drivers are the focus, which has sown fear among their ranks. A bomb was planted next to a convoy from the British Embassy in Baghdad this month, suggesting a possible new phase in the militias' campaign.

Seventeen years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad embassy has grown to become one of America's largest diplomatic outposts in the world. It was unclear Sunday whether the decision to pull out might still be reversed if Kadhimi's government is able to better protect Western diplomatic and military personnel.

His challenges are steep, and Iraqi officials say the prime minister has little backing. Kadhimi has tried to crack down on the militias by targeting their funding sources and restructuring Iraq's security apparatus to put trusted allies at the top. The militias have responded by increasing their attacks on diplomatic missions.

Iraqi security officials also attribute the assassination of a member of Kadhimi's inner circle, Hisham al-Hashemi, to an Iran-backed militia.

The State Department spokeswoman said "the presence of lawless, Iran-backed militias," as the United States attempts to secure financial support for Iraq from the international community and the private sector, "remains the single biggest deterrent to additional investment in Iraq."

The U.S. decision follows Kadhimi's visit to Washington last month, which was described by both sides in glowing terms as a sign of renewed partnership.

A senior official in Kadhimi's office said Sunday that the prime minister is now lobbying European partners to try to convince the U.S. to reverse its decision, citing the "negative consequences" that it might have on the country's stability.

Officials from three European embassies in Baghdad said their countries would stay even if the United States left.

The U.S. military leads a coalition that has been battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from Baghdad since 2014. Defense officials said the United States is planning to continue its counterinsurgency mission in Iraq for the time being.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, who heads U.S. Central Command, said this month that the United States would reduce its force level from more than 5,000 to about 3,000 by the end of the month.

Analysts said a U.S. pullout could set Kadhimi back in his fight against the militants.

"The trend here is that the U.S. is withdrawing. If they are not doing it now then they are doing it eventually," said Lahib Higel, a senior analyst at the Washington-based International Crisis Group. "These groups will reconstitute each other in one way or another; they are a part of Iraq's political landscape."

Pentagon officials say a continued mission is important to ensuring that the Islamic State does not make a major comeback. The group continues to launch small-scale attacks across Iraq.

The U.S. mission in Iraq also provides a base for ongoing operations in Syria. There are fewer than 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria, and many rely on the U.S. presence in Iraq for logistics and travel. Iran-backed militias have targeted Iraqi logistics companies servicing U.S.-linked military bases in recent months.

On Sunday, Iraq's military reported another attack. Officials said a convoy of trucks driven by Iraqis was targeted in the central province of Babil. "We're terrified," said one Iraqi who works with the U.S. coalition, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared being targeted by the militants. "What do they want us to say? That it's worth serving the U.S. mission with our lives? They don't even pay us very much."

Kadhimi, who was elected in May, has been locked in a high-stakes battle to clamp down on Iran-backed militias implicated in attacks on Western forces. According to two U.S. officials, Pompeo warned Iraq's government last week that the United States would close the embassy unless Kadhimi restrained them.

"I don't think that going out with a bang like this is going to help Iraq," Higel said.

Pompeo left Washington for Greece early Sunday for the first leg of a three-country trip. He did not speak to reporters accompanying him during the nine-hour flight. Cale Brown, the deputy spokesman on the trip with him, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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