Why Pompeo Flew to Baghdad in a Hurry
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi says the U.S. secretary of state was informed of Iranian missiles at an Iraqi base.
When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abruptly canceled a trip to Germany last week to fly to Iraq, standing up German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there was considerable consternation in diplomatic circles, especially since Pompeo’s reasons for the detour were quite vague.
But according to former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Pompeo’s unscheduled visit to Iraq came after Israeli intelligence indicated that “a stockpile of Iranian ballistic missiles were found in Iraq.” In an interview with the Iraqi TV channel Al Sharqiya, Allawi said he had recently met with senior U.S. officials in Amman, Jordan, who told him of the Israeli intelligence, which included “on-the-ground photographs and not just satellite imagery.”
“Israeli intelligence sent photographs of rocket stockpiles” in Basra in southern Iraq, Allawi told the TV station, “soon after the bombing of Gaza” by Hamas. Allawi added that “the intelligence shows the missiles pointed toward the Gulf states,” which are engaged in a geopolitical standoff with Iran. As a result, “the U.S. decided to investigate further and speak with Iraqi officials involved, and this is why Pompeo came.”
The Trump administration in recent weeks has cited unspecified Iranian threats as justification for deploying an aircraft carrier group, B-52 bombers, and Patriot missiles to the Middle East. News reports have indicated that U.S. officials believe Iran is moving short-range ballistic missiles to boats in the Persian Gulf.
Asked about Allawi’s statement, a State Department spokesperson said that “we do not comment on alleged intelligence reports,” but added: “The threats that led us to take precautions in Iraq are directly linked to Iran. The threats were specific and against American personnel in Iraq.” Allawi’s allegation could help explain why, on Wednesday, the State Department ordered all nonemergency government employees to leave the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and U.S. Consulate in Erbil.
Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security and political expert, told Foreign Policy that he believes “the information provided by Allawi is correct.” Hashimi said his understanding was that “Israeli planes had flown over Popular Mobilization Forces bases in Iraq to gather intelligence.” Hashimi said missiles were stockpiled at bases in Jurf al-Sakhar, a city 40 miles south of Baghdad, and the western Iraqi city of Nakheeb. The PMF began as a largely Shiite provisional army built to fight the Islamic State in 2014, but many Iraqi observers believe Iran exercises major influence at these two bases.
For most Iraq analysts, it comes as no surprise that parts of the PMF have been weaponized and trained by Iran. Following the rise of the Islamic State, both Iran and the United States provided Iraqi security forces with training and equipment, with many from the PMF continuing to be backed by Iran.
After enjoying a brief period of relative stability following the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017, many Iraqis now fear of a proxy war spilling over into their fragile nation. With more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq and the largest U.S. embassy in the world in Baghdad, as well as various economic interests in the country including ExxonMobil oil revenue, the United States is also vulnerable.
Last week, Pompeo told reporters on departing for Iraq that he “wanted to go to Baghdad to speak with the leadership there, to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq was a sovereign, independent nation.” However, when pressed, he said, “I just don’t want to go into the details of that.”