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Foreign policy

US Embassy closure in Iraq would hand Tehran a 'strategic victory,' says former Iraqi amb to UN

Feisal al-Istrabadi, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, joins The World's host Marco Werman to talk about the potential closure of the US Embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone.

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Pedestrians walk past an annex building inside the compound of the US Embassy in Baghdad, Dec. 14, 2011. The compound is located in Baghdad's Green Zone. 

Credit:

Lucas Jackson/Reuters 

When the US Embassy in Baghdad was built in 2009, it became the largest embassy in the world. If not bulletproof, it was trumpeted as extra-secure from possible attacks.

Now the US is threatening to shut it down.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly told the Iraqi government that if it can't rein in attacks on American targets, the US Embassy in Baghdad will close its doors. Any move by the United States to reduce its diplomatic presence in a country where it has up to 5,000 troops would be widely seen in the region as an escalation of its confrontation with Iran, which Washington blames for missile and bomb attacks.

In recent weeks, rocket attacks near the embassy have increased and roadside bombs targeted convoys carrying equipment to the US-led military coalition. One roadside attack two weeks ago hit a British convoy in Baghdad in the first such attack against Western diplomats in Iraq for years.

The potential US pullout opens the possibility of military action, with just weeks to go before an election in which President Donald Trump has campaigned on a hardline stance toward Tehran and its proxies.

In a region polarized between allies of Iran and the United States, Iraq is the rare exception: a country that has close ties with both. But that has left it open to a perennial risk of becoming a battleground in a proxy war.

Feisal al-Istrabadi, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about what the potential embassy closure could signal to Iran.

Related: How Iran maintains its military strategy during the pandemic 

Marco Werman: Ambassador, a threat to close an embassy seems like a big deal, and it also reportedly caught Iraqi officials by surprise. How surprised are you by this? 

Feisal al-Istrabadi: Well, actually, I am quite surprised. And I believe that it caught the Iraqis by surprise as well because the Iraqi prime minister was just in Washington for a meeting with President Trump, and the Iraqi team felt that the meeting went quite well. And so this sort of came out of the blue. 

Related: Young Iraqis continue to protest government corruption 

At the center of US complaints are attacks by Shia militias backed by Iran. They had been attacking right after the targeted assassination of [General Qasem] Soleimani. But have these attacks increased recently? And how is the government in Iraq responding? 

These attacks have been going on actually for quite some time, even before the assassination of General Soleimani. But there has sort of been a low-level background noise of this going on. The current Iraqi prime minister has taken a number of steps to try to rein in these militias, which is sort of what makes the American threat now so ironic that it comes at a time when the government of Iraq is actually doing what it can — which admittedly is not enough — but it is doing what it can to try to rein in these militias.

The prime minister has made a number of changes in the senior personnel of the security apparatus to get more competent officers loyal to the state rather than to the militias. He has removed their offices from what is usually called the Green Zone, sort of the heart of the government of Baghdad. He has removed them from the airport, etc. But there's a limit to what the prime minister can do, and up until this conversation between the president of Iraq and the US secretary of state, I had rather thought that the United States had understood that. 

Related: Killing Soleimani was a 'hasty' decision, says former undersecretary 

The property in this infamous Green Zone in Baghdad, it's nearly as large as Vatican City. For a country like the US that has had a deep and historic relationship with Iraq, a relationship that has led to the loss of many lives — can the US actually just close down the embassy, or do you think these are just threats? 

Well, it's hard to know with the current administration. We all sort of figure out what policy is based on the last tweet. So, it could be just a threat. It could also be serious. There's no way of knowing.

I will say that the true irony here is...that the United States, now in its third administration since the 2003 war, has been attempting to curb Iranian influence with a segment of the Iraqi political class. The United States now has a prime minister in Iraq who is focused on attempting to rebuild the institutions of the state, which must mean and does mean gaining control over these militias and limiting their role with an eye toward eliminating them. So, you have an American administration which is for almost two decades now trying to limit the influence of Iran. You have a government of Bagdhad trying to do effectively exactly the same thing. By withdrawing — by closing the embassy — the United States would actually be handing Tehran a victory, a strategic victory in Iraq. It has been Iranian policy for at least a decade to get the United States to leave Iraq. And here is the United States threatening to leave Iraq. 

Related: Analysis: No clear path forward for Iran-US relations 

Do you worry that a US Embassy pullout would automatically lead to renewed violence of some sort? 

The US pullout in 2011 ended in tears in 2014, when ISIL took over or occupied a third of the country. So, yes, I am concerned about that. There will also be knock-on effects. I know that my former colleagues in the Iraqi foreign ministry are very concerned that a withdrawal by the United States would signal to other Western states that it is not safe to be there and that a US withdrawal would embolden the very groups whose role the US is trying to limit and would lead to an increase in violence. Former colleagues of mine in the Iraqi foreign ministry are specifically concerned about the UK, French and German embassies, as well. It would be a huge signal of a lack of confidence in the government of Iraq and a huge victory for Iran over US policy in Iraq.

It's a very odd thing to do at a very odd time, whether it has something to do with the US election, maybe? But I don't see how the United States gains by seeking to confront the government of Iraq now, when the government of Iraq is doing the things that US governments have been asking it to do for almost two decades. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

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