That September 2012 attack came in the final leg of a heated presidential campaign. Republicans used it to pound out then-President Barack Obama as he was seeking a second term, as well as Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time of the events in Benghazi, when she ran for president in 2016.
With another presidential election in just over a month, a similar attack could undermine the Trump administration’s claims to have re-established deterrence against Iran and successfully managed the US withdrawal from Iraq. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – one of Clinton’s strongest critics of Benghazi – has his own future presidential election in mind. Both men are said to be profoundly averse to the idea of a Benghazi-like tragedy, with Pompeo in particular expressing concern about the safety of his team. After security forces fended off a violation of the embassy by militiamen and demonstrators in Baghdad in December, Trump called him “Anti-Benghazi. ”
US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller has told Iraqi officials that the US has learned of a direct threat, which may include the hostage situation, according to a well-connected Iraqi analyst. However, the analyst was unsure whether this threat was targeted at the embassy or Americans outside the embassy.
Iraqi leaders were given 10 days to show progress against the militias or the US would leave the embassy, the analyst said, asking for anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations. The understanding is that with the departure of US diplomats, American forces will feel freer to use air strikes and other means to beat the Iran-backed armed groups, several people said.
“There is no greater threat to US personnel than Baghdad because Baghdad cannot and does not want to control the militias,” Michael Pregent, a Middle East scholar with the Hudson Institute, told the Iraqi government. “They don’t have the ability and they don’t have the willingness to do it. And that puts the US mission at great risk.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein traveled over the weekend to Tehran to speak to his Iranian colleagues, with US demands presumably on the agenda.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Benghazi precedent was “on everyone’s lips” but Iraqi leaders were surprised by the warnings from the US. The official argued that by closing the embassy, the Trump administration would create the impression of ceding the land to Iran and its proxies while undercutting the struggling and underfunded Iraqi partners.
“It is illogical,” said the Iraqi official, noting that American diplomats remained in Baghdad in far more dangerous conditions after the 2003 US invasion and during the height of the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group. “We can’t do this in an American timeframe without tearing things apart.”
The discussion comes just weeks after the US announced it would cut its military footprint in Iraq by almost half by the end of September, with 2,200 soldiers coming out. The withdrawal was fueled by the Islamic State’s debilitating aggressiveness, already weakened by coalition pressure and further undermined by the Covid-19 pandemic, a U.S. military official said.
Pentagon officials initially understood the State Department’s threat to shut down the embassy as a bluff designed to encourage Iraqis to do more against the armed militias that are endangering the US armed forces. But “there was no point that we would actually withdraw from the embassy,” said a defense official.
Discussions about closing the embassy are still at a relatively high level at the State Department, and many at the grassroots level have more questions than answers. Senior US officials reached out to colleagues in the region, officials from the State Department and Iraq said.
Capitol Hill staff said they were blind and even confused by reports of a possible embassy closure. A congressional assistant said the information they had received about the recent US-Iraq strategic dialogues “made it sound like a love feast, not whatever that is.”
The Foreign Ministry keeps saying that the current Iraqi Prime Minister [Mustafa al-Khadimi] is a solid partner, but that seems to cut his legs off, ”said the aide. He added that the potential for the conflict to escalate is even higher if the US steps up its operations against the militias after the embassy closes.
It is still unclear how the US could define “closure”. For example, it is unknown whether the US would leave completely or leave Americans behind, including potential security guards, to patrol the site, which covers an area about the size of Vatican City. One option is to shut down the US embassy, which cost more than $ 700 million to build, but relocate much of its activities to the US consulate in Erbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Iranian threats against US forces, particularly in Iraq, have increased in recent weeks after a month-long lull due to the coronavirus pandemic that has hit both senior Iranian leaders and ordinary civilians. Tensions between Washington and Tehran turned into almost widespread conflict in January after a US drone attack killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, while visiting Baghdad. Iran retaliated by firing a barrage of Iranian ballistic missiles at two bases that hosted US troops in Iraq, causing dozens of traumatic brain injuries. Tehran said it was planning more revenge.
At the time, Pompeo said that by killing Soleimani, the United States had restored “deterrence” against Iran. However, in the months since then, that claim has also been challenged, with threats against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad being the latest test.
The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has seen an increase in minor attacks against the Iraqi security forces over the past calendar year, although there has been no comparable increase in major “catastrophic” incidents, the coalition spokesman said Colonel Wayne Marotto. The armed groups believed to be supported by Iran are targeting Iraqi civilians as well as ISF sites, he said.
“We had more indirect fire attacks around and against our bases in the first half of this year than in the first half of last year,” said General Frank McKenzie, the commander of the US Central Command recentlyalthough he realized the attacks did not hit their targets.
A State Department spokesman, asked for details and comments on U.S. plans for the embassy, including whether Pompeo has Benghazi in mind, declined to discuss the secretary’s private talks.
“However, the United States will not tolerate threats to our overseas men and women and we will not hesitate to take any measures we deem necessary to ensure the safety of our staff,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We pointed out earlier that the actions of outlawed Iranian-backed militias remain the greatest deterrent to stability in Iraq. It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to fire missiles at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq. “
US officials claim that Iran’s political and military influence in Iraq goes too far and threatens the lives of Americans. But any US attempt to undercut Iran in Iraq risks a bloody reaction. In late December, for example, after a US air strike on a militia aligned with Iran, dozens of militiamen and their supporters broken into the US embassy site in Baghdad setting fire to a reception area. In fall 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the US consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, citing threats from Iran.
Iraqi leaders are realizing that they are the ones who live in the region and that the US needs to calibrate its moves against its neighbor. The Trump administration’s decision to kill Soleimani enraged many top Iraqis and resulted in Iraq being urged to evict US troops.
The Iraq analyst argued that a US decision to close the embassy would be “insane” because it might appear that Iran had successfully driven America out. “This is the posthumous victory of Qassem Soleimani,” the analyst said, referring to the late Iranian general who oversaw much of Iran’s military activities beyond its borders.
Pregent disagreed. He said the real reason for the threat of closing the embassy was to get Iraqi officials to assert themselves against the militias, and thus against the Iranians. Also, Iran doesn’t necessarily want the US to end ties with Iraq as it relies on Iraq as an economic lifeline. Iraq without US support harms Iran, he said.
However, he admitted that closing the embassy is a gamble.
“This can be an accidental stupid administrative move,” Pregent said. “I like it because it’s leverage, but you may not know what you’re doing.”