U.S. bugging out of Iraq?

Well… not exactly. Or at least not entirely. But the State Department has ordered all non-essential personnel to leave the country. It’s a move unusual enough to lead to questions and it almost certainly has to do with the deteriorating situation with Iran. (NPR)

The State Department has ordered all “non-emergency” U.S. government employees to leave Iraq right away.

The travel advisory specifically orders the departure of employees at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil, noting that “normal visa services will be temporarily suspended at both posts.”

It was not immediately clear what led to the order on Wednesday. The advisory instructs U.S. citizens not to travel to Iraq due to high risks of terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.

The idea that Iraq and Syria are dangerous places to travel isn’t exactly new, particularly given the presence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in both countries. But has that threat scaled up this year? The White House says yes, but not everyone agrees. Before the ink was even dry on that order, the British deputy commander of the allied forces fighting ISIS in the region, Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, put out a statement contradicting our State Department, saying he hadn’t seen any increase in the threat level. (New York Times)

“We are aware of their presence clearly and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because of the environment we are in,” General Ghika said.

But he said, “No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”

Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington — where John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Trump into backing Iran into a corner.

The New York Times is obviously playing down the threat and seeking to blame John Bolton’s influence on President Trump for ratcheting up tensions in the region. How much of that is true? It’s a fair bet that, as usual, there’s probably a bit of truth on both sides. Anyone who has been watching the increased activities of Iranian financed militias in Yemen, Syria and the Palestinian territories has to at least suspect that they’ve been pushing the boundaries for a while now.

But at the same time, it’s tough to argue against the claim that both Bolton and Mike Pompeo have long been very hawkish on Iran. I’m not saying either one of them is specifically looking to start a war there, but I have no doubt they wouldn’t mind finishing one. The question to address here is whether this is all part of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” technique designed to bring Iran back to the table on nuclear negotiations or if he feels that horse has already left the barn and he’s preparing to eliminate Iran’s nuclear facilities in a more “direct” fashion.

Personally, I don’t see Trump taking the first step toward military engagement there. He would definitely prefer another diplomatic victory, with Iran agreeing to more comprehensive inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. But if any Iranian vessels wind up attacking either the cargo ships or naval forces of the United States or our allies, you’d better buckle your seatbelts. A war with Iran would be extraordinarily messy.