Australia has begun withdrawing its officials from strife-torn Iraq, as the US embassy also evacuates personnel and beefs up security.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says a number of embassy staff members have been withdrawn from Baghdad due to the deteriorating security situation.
“The Australian embassy remains open with reduced staffing levels,’’ DFAT says in its latest travel advice.
“We are unlikely to be able to provide consular assistance in Iraq at the current time.’’
Islamic militants, spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadist group, have taken over a swathe of territory in northern Iraq in an offensive that has brought fighting to within 80km of the capital.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says an “essential core’’ of embassy staff will remain in place but they will be limited in what they can do for the estimated 90-plus Australians in Iraq.
“Due to the very challenging security environment we are unlikely to be able to provide the level of consular assistance that might be expected,’’ she told ABC radio.
The Iraqi government said yesterday it had “regained the initiative’’ against the militants, claiming to have killed 279 “terrorists’’ in the previous 24 hours.
Ms Bishop described the situation as very volatile and said it could deteriorate further with little warning.
“But we certainly strongly support the Iraqi government’s ongoing efforts to counter this terrorism that’s taking place within its borders,’’ she said.
The United States said it was “temporarily relocating’’ staff from its embassy in Baghdad to US consulates in Basra in the south and Arbil in the northern Kurdish territories, neither of which is currently threatened militants.
It was unclear how many staff members would be evacuated from the US mission. Located within the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses much of the international presence in the city, the US embassy is the largest in the world.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the US Department of Defence spokesman, said a “small number of DOD personnel are augmenting State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities.’’
Admiral Kirby indicated that the embassy staff were being relocated using commercial, charter and State Department aircraft, and that the US military also had air assets available as needed.
‘’The Embassy of the United States in Baghdad remains open and will continue to engage daily with Iraqis and their elected leaders _ supporting them as they strengthen Iraq’s constitutional processes and defend themselves from imminent threats,’’ US spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
She stressed that Washington “strongly supports Iraq and its people’’ as they face the militants’ onslaught.
American contractors working for the Iraqi government to train local security forces on US military equipment are already being evacuated from the country.
Additional US government security personnel will join the staff at the embassy in Baghdad “as a result of ongoing instability and violence in certain areas of Iraq,’’Ms Psaki said.