The US is temporarily withdrawing some staff from the US Embassy in Baghdad amid concerns of retaliation around the anniversary of the death of a powerful Iranian military commander, according to three sources familiar with the decision.
One US official said the drawdown would take place in the lead-up to the January 3 anniversary of the US’ killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani due to concerns about retaliation. A source familiar echoed this and said the decision to have a partial, temporary withdrawal was determined at a Tuesday meeting of the National Security Council’s Policy Coordination Committee.
Both the US official and the source said the withdrawal was expected to last only until mid-January, after the anniversary passes.
A diplomatic source described the drawdown as “slight,” noting that it comes at a time when people take leave and the State Department is allowing more people to leave at this time.
It is unclear exactly how many diplomats are being pulled from the embassy.
The US government expects possible retaliation around the Soleimani death anniversary. One defense official told CNN that Iran’s leaders want revenge “and they aren’t going to give up,” but that the US knows the Iranians don’t rush things and they could plan for many more months.
A State Department spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied the temporary withdrawal, saying, “We do not comment on the details of any adjustments but remain committed to a strong diplomatic partnership with Iraq.”
“Ambassador (Matthew) Tueller remains in Iraq and the Embassy in Baghdad continues to operate,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “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.”
“Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel, U.S. citizens, and the security of our facilities, remains our highest priority,” they said.
The Washington Post was first to report that some staff were being pulled from the embassy in Baghdad.
In September, the Trump administration threatened to shutter its diplomatic outpost in the Iraqi capital if Iranian-backed militia attacks targeting US personnel in the country didn’t subside. At the Policy Coordination Committee meeting Tuesday, the option to fully withdraw staff from the embassy was not selected, the source familiar said, and the US official said no decision has been made to close the embassy.
The embassy ordered certain employees to leave in March “due to security conditions and restricted travel options as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.