The US embassy in Baghdad has ordered all non-essential and non-emergency staff to leave Iraq immediately as tensions grow between Washington and Iran.
Last week, Washington said it had detected new and urgent threats from Iran and its proxy forces in the region targeting Americans and US interests.
The remarks contradict comments from Maj Gen Chris Ghika, a British senior officer in the US-backed coalition fighting Islamic State, who said: “There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
US Central Command later said Ghika’s remarks “run counter to the identified credible threats” from Iranian-backed forces in the Middle East. In a written statement, it said the coalition in Baghdad had increased the alert level for all service members in Iraq and Syria.
The order came as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a veiled threat in the same speech in which he said “no one is seeking war”, saying it would not be difficult for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, state media reported on Wednesday.
Khamenei’s comments followed a coordinated drone attack by Houthi rebels in Yemen on a Saudi oil pipeline. A satellite image shows one of the two pumping stations targeted by the drones apparently intact.
It comes after authorities in Saudi Arabia alleged oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were sabotaged.
The US also is deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region in response to what it claims is an increased threat from Iran, further ramping up tensions a year after Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Speaking on Tuesday evening, Khamenei downplayed the likelihood of a wider conflict with the US.
“Neither we, nor them, is seeking war. They know that it is not to their benefit,” he said. But the supreme leader reportedly told senior officials Tehran would not negotiate with Washington.
On Wednesday, the state-run Iran newspaper reported his comments on the nuclear programme, the first since Iran announced it would begin backing away from the accord.
Tehran is threatening to resume higher enrichment – beyond the 3.67% permitted by the outstanding deal – in 60 days if no new agreement is reached.
Iranian officials have said they could reach 20% enrichment within four days. Although Tehran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90% threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to about 20%.
Khamenei said: “Achieving 20% enrichment is the most difficult part. The next steps are easier than this step.”
It was a telling remark from Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state in Iran, which is not known to have enriched beyond 20% previously.
The Houthis, who are at war with Saudi Arabia and are believed by the west to receive weapons from Iran, said they launched seven drones targeting key Saudi installations. These included two pumping stations along a pipeline that can carry up to 5m barrels of crude oil a day.
The state-controlled oil company Saudi Aramco said it temporarily closed the pipeline as a precaution. A fire also caused minor damage to one pumping station, it said, adding that Saudi Aramco’s oil and gas supplies were not affected.
Details of the alleged acts of sabotage against four tankers, two of which belonged to Saudi Arabia, remain unclear. Satellite images showed no visible damage to the vessels, and Gulf officials have refused to say who they believe was responsible.