The United States has announced it will close its consulate in Basra, citing what it said were threats from the Iranian government and Iran-backed militias in Iraq that have launched rocket attacks on the facility.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the announcement late on September 28 that he would hold Iran directly responsible for any attacks on Americans and U.S. diplomatic facilities in the neighboring country.
The U.S. announcement followed recent rocket attacks that Pompeo said were directed at the consulate in Basra and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The rockets did not do any damage to the facilities.
"Threats to our personnel and facilities in Iraq from the government of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, and from militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani have increased over the past several weeks," Pompeo said.
"I have advised the government of Iran that the United States will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to Americans or to our diplomatic facilities in Iraq or elsewhere...whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias," he said.
"I have made clear that Iran should understand that the United States will respond promptly and appropriately to any such attacks."
Without giving details, Pompeo said the threats against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq were "increasing and specific" and included " incitement to attack our personnel and facilities in Iraq."
He said that Washington was working with Iraqi forces and U.S. allies to address the threats.
"We look to all international parties interested in peace and stability in Iraq and the region to reinforce our message to Iran regarding the unacceptability of their behavior," he said.
Pompeo, who as a U.S. congressman was a leading critic of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her handling of a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, stressed in his statement that he was putting a high priority on the "safety and security" of U.S. diplomatic personnel.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry called the U.S. allegations of fomenting violence in Basra "astonishing, provocative, and irresponsible."
In a statement issued on September 29, Iraq's Foreign Ministry said it "regrets the American decision to pull its staff out of Basra."
The developments in Basra come after a week of confrontation between the United States and Iran at the United Nations, including dueling speeches by the presidents of each country.
U.S. President Donald Trump in his address to the UN General Assembly accused Iran's leaders of sowing "chaos, death, and destruction" in the Middle East and called on other nations to join the United States in imposing economic sanctions on Tehran.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani in his speech denounced the United States for waging what he called an "economic war" against his country, and proclaimed that Trump's bid to isolate Iran had fallen on deaf ears, with most UN members ignoring it.
Despite Iran's defiance of Trump's demands, his move in May to withdraw the United States from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reimpose U.S. economic sanctions has contributed to a major loss in the value of the country's currency, the rial, and an economic slump this year.
In announcing the closure of the Basra consulate, which is located in the city's airport, the U.S. State Department said it had instituted an "ordered departure," which means the staff will be drawn down and relocated at least temporarily, although some personnel could remain in the diplomatic compound.
The department also renewed its advisory urging Americans not to travel to Iraq, saying "numerous terrorist and insurgent groups are active in Iraq" and "U.S. citizens in Iraq are at high risk for violence and kidnapping."
The port city of Basra has been rocked recently by seemingly unrelated violent protests against the Iraqi political establishment, which currently has the support of both the United States and Iran but which protesters have contended has failed to provide critical services and improve people's lives.
The protesters earlier this month torched the Iranian Consulate in Basra and ransacked and set alight Iraqi government buildings there, shouting denunciations of what they said was Iran's sway over Iraqi domestic affairs.
While Iran's consulate was destroyed during the protests, no one was injured. An Iran-backed Shi'ite militia vowed revenge for the attack on the consulate, and about a week later, three Katyusha rockets were fired at Basra's airport, which houses the U.S. consulate. Pompeo suggested in a tweet at the time that the attack was aimed at the U.S. diplomatic facility.
Also, for the first time in several years, mortar shells landed this month inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and other foreign consulates as well as the Iraqi parliament and government buildings.