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Iraqi PM rallies allies to stop US closing embassy

Iraq’s prime minister has rallied allies to help stop the US from closing its embassy in the country after the Trump administration threatened to withdraw its diplomats if Baghdad fails to stop persistent rocket attacks.

The ultimatum was delivered over the weekend by the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and was followed by a small-scale evacuation from the fortified mission in what officials saw as a statement of intent.

But it was unclear if the warning was a ploy to force a crackdown on Iraq’s powerful militias, or the first step in a sweeping strategic move to end a 17-year post war US presence in Iraq.

Khadimi, a US ally who visited the White House last month, was caught unaware by Pompeo’s demands, which came amid an election campaign so far contested largely on domestic issues. Trump’s few forays into foreign policy have centred on bringing troops home from Iraq and elsewhere and demanding unfettered loyalty from allies, including Baghdad.

Khadimi is considered more US-leaning than his predecessors, but his authority has been tested in recent months by powerful Iran-backed militias who are believed responsible for an escalating string of rocket attacks on Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where the seat of government and diplomatic missions are located.

The barrages have increased throughout a year that started with a US drone strike in Baghdad, which killed the powerful Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of one of the militias, Kata’ib Hezbollah.

Since then, Iranian-inspired attacks on US and other western interests have been constant – despite Khadimi’s insistence that he would put an end to them. His relative powerlessness has led some members of Trump’s inner circle to lose faith in a man they had hoped could be prized from Iran’s orbit.

Another section of the administration, however, insists that Iraq’s geography and post-war experiences have made dealing with Iran an inevitability, and that a naked “with us or against us” approach is doomed to fail.

“The rocket attacks are a trigger for a longer standing and broader issue: the US administration feels that it has invested billions and many lives in Iraq and got little in return,” said former senior EU diplomat Clarisse Pasztory, who spent more than a decade in Iraq.

“Instead, Iran benefited. Trump thinks transactionally and doesn’t swallow conventional wisdom. The argument of sunk costs doesn’t buy. He wants Iraq to either show that it is firmly with the US, and grateful at that, or else to end what Trump sees as a charade.”