Developing: The closure of the US consulate in Basra
The US announced the closure of its consulate in Basra on September 28. Mike Pompeo issued a statement. It reads that "threats to our personnel and facilities in Iraq from the Government of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, and from militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani have increased over the past several weeks. There have been repeated incidents of indirect fire from elements of those militias directed at our Consulate General in Basrah and our Embassy in Baghdad, including within the past twenty-four hours."
Therefore Pompeo says that the US has "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 and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias. I have made clear that Iran should understand that the United States will respond promptly and appropriately to any such attacks."
But, given the specific threats, "to attack our personnel and facilities in Iraq, I have directed that an appropriate temporary relocation of diplomatic personnel in Iraq take place." Alistair Burt, Minister of State at the Foreign Office in the UK, tweeted concern. "Deeply concerned by developments that have led to the withdrawal of US diplomats from their Consulate in Basra. UK stands with US against any threat to the safety of their staff. UK condemns all violence or threats against diplomatic missions in Iraq."
The US had previously warned Iran that it would be held accountable in early September. This happened after a mortar attack in the first week of September. Iraq regretted the US decision and said it was committed to protecting consulates. The local governor, who has faced mass protests in recent months, said it could affect the province.
Michael Pregent notes: "Soleimani sees closing of Basra consulate as a sign of weakness - his proxies will be encouraged to step up mortar & rocket attacks on US Emb Baghdad. This DOS statement “We’ll respond swiftly & effectively, & it will not be at proxies.” is a mistake & will encourage more attacks."
This comes amid US concerns about the formation of a new Iraqi government that may be closer to Iran than the previous one and which may have a more visible role for militias. The US Congress is trying to sanction some of those Iranian-backed militias. In fact the closure came a day after a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing discussing sanctions on Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbollah al-Nujaba. The Hezbollah al-Nujaba Twitter account even tweeted about the consulate closure.
But there are questions about whether the consulate closure is about Iran or was planned beforehand and this was used as an excuse. Although indirect fire, including rockets, landing near the consulate area near the airport was cited as a reason, other sources said there may be more to it. John Hudson at The Washington Post noted, "A senior Iraqi official tells The Post the decision to close the consulate in Basra appeared political & not driven by any credible threat from Iran or its militias. 'We are not aware of any intention by Iran or its friends in Iraq to attack [US] diplomats or the consulate.'"
On September 27 the US Consul in Basra, Timmy Davis, had tweeted that "Our friends, especially our friends in Basra, want you to know that the people of the United States stand with you."
Iran called the closure "ridiculous."
The context of the closure relates not only to US pressure on Iranian-backed militias and the dispute about who will form the next government in Iraq. There is also rising rhetoric in Washington about Iran from the Iraq Action Group and Tehran is trying to find a way around sanctions in the wake of the UNGA. In addition a major attack in Ahvaz killed 25 on September 22. Tehran has sought to implicate the US in the attack. The Basra consulate threats may be related directly to that attack. Basra is only a short drive from the border and Ahvaz is on the other side of the border in Iran.