Iraq 'regrets' US closure of Basra consulate, Iran rejects 'propaganda'

Iraq 'regrets' US closure of Basra consulate, Iran rejects 'propaganda'
Authorities in Iraq issued a statement denouncing the US closure of its Basra consulate, while Tehran rejected what it called American 'propaganda'.
3 min read
30 September, 2018
Basra has been rocked with protests [File Photo: Getty]

Iraq's foreign ministry voiced "regret" on Saturday over a US decision to shut its consulate in the southern city of Basra which has been rocked by weeks of deadly protests, while Iran accused Washington of making "false accusations" to pressure Baghdad.

"The ministry regrets the American decision to pull its staff out of Basra," a statement said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered all but emergency staff to leave Basra, with consular duties to be taken over by the embassy in Baghdad.

Pompeo, who has made rolling back Iranian influence in the region a top priority, said the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force are threatening US personnel and facilities, and blamed Iranian militias for "indirect fire" - which usually means rockets or artillery - against the US consulate.

"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 and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias," he said in a statement while in New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

"I have made clear that Iran should understand that the United States will respond promptly and appropriately to any such attacks," he added.

The State Department also sent out a renewed advisory urging Americans not to travel to Iraq.

Iran, for its part, rejected what it called the US "propaganda and false accusations", insisting it condemned any attacks on diplomatic sites.

"Iran sees the absurd US justification which follow weeks of propaganda and false accusations against Iran and Iraqi forces as playing a blame-game," said the country's foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.

"The Islamic Republic condemns any aggression against diplomats and diplomatic sites," he added.

Ghasemi charged that the US move was a pretext for promoting "insecurity in Iraq" and to "pressure the country's government.”

A senior Iraqi security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk publicly, told Washington Post the decision did not appear driven by any credible threat from Iran or the militias it supports.

"We are not aware of any intention by Iran or its friends in Iraq to attack American diplomats or the consulate," the official said. "This is another unfortunate move that is making Iraq the playground for America's quarrel with Iran."

Iran and America have been competing for influence in Iraq as Baghdad looks to form a new government since May elections.  

The State Department did not comment on whether the consulate's closure would be permanent. It has an estimated 1,000 employees, mostly contractors working in security, food service and other support jobs.

The New York Times reported the State Department has been considering for more than a year shutting down the Basra consulate to save money, citing three former officials. The consulate costs at least $200 million to operate each year, with estimates reaching $350 million, the Times said.

Burning buildings

Basra has been at the centre of protests that broke out in the southern province in July before spreading to other parts of the country, as demonstrators railed against poor services and condemned corruption among government officials.

Protesters have set fire to several government buildings as well as headquarters of political parties and militias backed by Iran, which saw its consulate in Basra burnt to the ground.

In Baghdad in early September, assailants fired three mortar rounds into the Green Zone, a heavily fortified area which is home to the Iraqi parliament, government offices and the US embassy.

The rare attack did not cause casualties or damage.

Neighbouring Iran is the other major outside power present in Iraq, alongside bitter foe the United States which led the 2003 invasion that toppled veteran dictator Saddam Hussein.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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