(Persia Digest) - A top Iraqi diplomat pushed back Wednesday against the Trump administration’s assertion that Iran-backed militants have been responsible for attacks on the U.S. consulate in southern Iraq, saying recent insecurity in the city of Basra was caused purely by political demonstrations and “a normal expression of democracy,” reports Guy Taylor in The Washington Times.
“There are no forces or military groups in Iraq that receive orders from abroad, whether from Iran or from another country,” said Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ahmed Mahjoub, who is in Washington this week for meetings with U.S. officials.
“We regret that some riots happened and some facilities were attacked,” Mr. Mahjoub told reporters during a round-table discussion at the Iraqi embassy Wednesday, adding that Iraq’s government has sent in security forces to “ensure that Basra is safe.”
He also said Iraqi officials were “surprised” by the Trump administration’s decision in recent days to withdraw U.S. personnel from the American consulate there — a move that came after a rocket was fired at the facility.
Mr. Mahjoub’s comments underscored Baghdad’s resistance to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that Iran-backed militants are active in Iraq and that ongoing destabilization efforts by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have endangered the lives of American diplomats in Basra, roughly 300 miles south of the Iraqi capital.
In a statement Friday, Mr. Pompeo roundly laid blame on Iran for the emergency evacuation of U.S. personnel from city, as well as for security threats to American diplomats still posted to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
“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,” the secretary of state said. “I have made clear that Iran should understand that the United States will respond promptly and appropriately to any such attacks.”
Officials at the Pentagon said Tuesday that U.S. military forces are planning to provide support to evacuate American personnel from Basra. Military units from U.S. Central Command, and those tied to the American-led coalition battling the Islamic State in Iraq, will assist in the evacuation, according to Army Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the coalition.
“We do not have any numbers [of units] right now or timelines, but when asked, we will definitely support,” Col. Ryan told reporters.
Washington has for years blamed IRGC for standing up various proxy forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Eyewitnesses in Basra have reported that two rockets were fired last week toward a secure compound at the southern Iraqi city’s airport, where the U.S. consulate is located. The rockets reportedly hit beyond the outer security perimeter of the compound and caused no casualties.
While Mr. Pompeo laid blame on Iran, reports are conflicting over who fired the rockets.
Col. Ryan told reporters it may have been the work of local protesters, angered over the lack of much-needed government services and rampant corruption among the city’s leaders, rather than an organized paramilitary force. “You have folks that are out there shooting weapons that they may not know how to use,” he said of the rocket attack.
Mr. Mahjoub pushed a similar explanation Wednesday, telling reporters that what’s been occurring is “a normal expression of democracy.”
“I’m not aware of the source of the information that Secretary Pompeo has regarding the Iranian role in the threats against the U.S. consulate in Basrah,” the foreign ministry spokesman said.
“Democracy and free expression of speech is granted in Iraq,” he said. “We regret that some riots happened and some facilities were attacked.”
“We also regret that the Iranian consulate was attacked during these demonstrations,” Mr. Mahjoub added, asserting that “it’s good” that the Iranian consulate is now “back to work” in the city.
“We were surprised that our American friends withdrew their staff from the U.S. consulate,” he said, asserting that Iraq’s government is “committed to protecting all foreign missions in Basra.”
“What proves that is that the British are still there,” Mr. Mahjoub said.
He also said he’s that he’s keenly aware of U.S.-Iran tensions and expressed hope that Iraq can be “a bridge” between Washington and Tehran. “Iraq doesn’t want to see the relationship between Iran and the United States affect the relationship between the United States and Iraq,” he said. “We want independent relations between Iraq and the United States.”
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