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Tension Is Rising In Iraq Over An Alleged U.S. Threat To Close Its Embassy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Iraqi leaders say Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened to shut down the huge U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The reason? Attacks that are being blamed on Iran-backed militias. As NPR's Jane Arraf reports, it is yet another serious crisis for Iraq involving the U.S. and Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUAD HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Iraq's foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, told reporters today the U.S. had made what he called an initial decision to close its embassy in Baghdad. Iraqi leaders are desperately hoping it won't become final. Hussein said the U.S. closing the embassy would be disastrous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) There is the possibility that if the Americans withdraw from Baghdad, it will lead other countries to also withdraw. And this would be dangerous.

ARRAF: The U.S. isn't commenting publicly. The U.S. ambassador and top diplomats from more than 20 other countries met with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi today. The ambassador's joint statement said they were deeply concerned over the rise and sophistication of attacks. And they called for more effective security for the Green Zone, where the U.S. and many other embassies are based. It's also where some Iraqi security forces have ties to Iran and rocket attacks are frequent.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

ARRAF: This is the sound of U.S. missile defenses intercepting rockets over the embassy compound. They were installed this year after Iranian threats to retaliate over the U.S. drone killing of senior Iranian leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Other attacks have targeted a British convoy. And there are almost daily attacks on Iraqi convoys carrying U.S. military equipment.

Kadhimi told the diplomats Iraq would do more to disarm militias and better protect diplomatic missions. The U.S. has blamed Iran. Iran denies it's behind the attacks against U.S. targets. But the Iraqi foreign minister flew to Tehran on the weekend. Fuad Hussein told Iranian leaders Iraq can't afford conflict between Iran and the U.S. on its soil, that it would destabilize the entire region. Some Iraqi officials worry a U.S. withdrawal would empower Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Back in Baghdad, the foreign minister told reporters he realizes it's election season in the U.S., that some officials might be afraid of a Benghazi-style attack, where U.S. diplomats in Libya were killed in 2012. But he said that's not a valid comparison, and closing the Baghdad Embassy would be a wrong decision.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.