US forces deny preparing to evacuate hundreds of contractors from Iraqi base
US forces have denied they are getting to evacuate hundreds of staff working for Lockheed Martin and Sallyport Global from an Iraqi military base where they work as contractors, after three Iraqi military sources said preparations were underway.
The sprawling Balad base, which hosts US forces some 80km north of Baghdad, was hit by three mortar shells last week. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
"There are no plans at this time to evacuate any personnel from Balad ... Should there be increased threats to our people, the US Air Force will put measures in place to provide the protections required," Air Force Colonel Kevin Walker said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin in the Middle East said: "We are not evacuating Lockheed Martin employees right now from Balad Air Base."
She did not say whether any other evacuation was being prepared.
Nearly 400 contractors from the two firms were getting ready to leave the base, over "potential security threats," the Reuters news agency reported Iraqi sources saying on Friday.
The sources said their departure was imminent but did not give any details about the security threats.
The US military informed Iraqi officials that they would begin evacuating about half of the 800 employees who work for both companies at Balad, said a military official with knowledge of the base's daily operations.
The official said the evacuation would take about 10 days.
Two other military sources said the evacuation would take place in two stages and would be carried out by military aircraft.
"Americans informed us that they will only keep limited, necessary staff who work closely on the maintenance of Iraqi F-16 war planes," they said.
Lockheed Martin began delivering the first F-16s to Iraq in 2014.
The sources said the evacuation could start at any moment.
Two other Iraqi bases hosting US forces have been hit by rockets in the past week in unclaimed attacks.
On Wednesday, a rocket attack hit near a site used by US energy company Exxon Mobil near the southern city of Basra.
Local officials blamed Iran-backed militias for the Basra incident.
The uptick in violence comes amid rising regional tension between the United States and Iran.
Iran has not commented on the Iraq incidents but has strongly rejected accusations by Washington that it was behind several attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks.
Washington has ramped up sanctions pressure on Tehran since last year and several violent incidents in the Gulf have been blamed on the rising tension.
President Donald Trump on Friday said he had called off a US strike on Iran at the last minute following Tehran's downing of a US surveillance drone early on Thursday.
In Iraq, Iran backs several militias which have positions close to US military installations, Reuters said.
Those militias have not publicly commented on the recent incidents.
The Islamic State group is also trying to stage a comeback in Iraq and has mostly used hit-and-run insurgency tactics against Iraqi forces in recent months.