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Rocket explodes near U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

Rocket explodes near U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
The U.S. Embassy is in Baghdad's Green Zone, also the site of the Victory Arch sculpture. (Murtaja Lateef /EPA-EFE/REX)

A rocket crashed Sunday in the Iraqi capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, landing less than a mile from the sprawling U.S. Embassy, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

The apparent attack in central Baghdad, which Iraq's state-run news agency said did not cause casualties, came amid heightened tensions across the Persian Gulf after the White House ordered warships and bombers to the region earlier this month. U.S. officials cited an alleged, unexplained threat from Iran. The U.S. also has ordered nonessential staff out of its diplomatic posts in Iraq.

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Associated Press reporters on the east side of the Tigris River, opposite the Green Zone, heard an explosion, after which sirens sounded briefly in Baghdad.

Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul said a Katyusha rocket fell near the statue of the Unknown Soldier, less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy. He said the military was investigating the cause but that the rocket was believed to have been fired from east Baghdad. The area is home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.

As tensions escalate between the U.S. and Iran, there have been concerns that Baghdad could get caught in the middle just as it’s on a path to recovery. The country hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those U.S. forces to leave.

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the country’s invitation to help battle the Islamic State militant group after it seized vast areas in the north and west of Iraq, including its second-largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove Islamic State out in a costly three-year campaign. Iranian-backed militias fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi troops against militants, gaining outsized influence and power.

Now, amid an escalating conflict between the U.S. and Iran, Iraq is vulnerable to being caught up in the power play. An attack targeting U.S. interests in Iraq would be detrimental to the country's recent efforts to recover and reclaim its status in the Arab world.

On May 8, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a previously unannounced trip to the Iraqi capital following the abrupt cancellation of a visit to Germany. He told Iraqi intelligence that the United States had been picking up intelligence that Iran was threatening American interests in the Middle East, although he offered no details, according to two Iraqi officials.

A few days later, as U.S.-Iranian tensions continued to rise, the State Department ordered all nonessential, non-emergency government staff to leave Iraq.

Employees of energy giant ExxonMobil also have begun evacuating from an oil field in the southern Iraqi province of Basra.

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