With Pope in Iraq, US embassy warns of increased attack risk

On the same day that Pope Francis arrived in Iraq for his most risky foreign trip yet, the United States Embassy in Baghdad issued a warning to all Americans in the area of increased attacks by militant groups targeting westerners.

ROME – On the same day that Pope Francis arrived in Iraq for his riskiest foreign trip yet, the United States Embassy in Baghdad issued a warning to all Americans in the area of increased attacks by militant groups targeting Westerners.

In a March 5 security alert, the US embassy to Iraq reminded citizens that “extremist groups and regional actors have conducted destructive and sometimes lethal attacks against a variety of targets.” The alert doesn’t reference the pope’s trip, but it appeared the same day he arrived.

“Attacks may occur with little or no warning, impacting airports, tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities. Iraqi and Western facilities and places frequented by U.S. citizens and other Westerners may also be targeted,” they said, noting that there’s also a threat of both drone and missile strikes in civilian areas of Iraq.

“Violence associated with Iran-supported groups represents a significant threat,” they said, and urged all US citizens living or working near military bases and key infrastructural buildings to take extra precautions and to stay on high alert.

The embassy also voiced concern over increased rocket attacks by Iraqi militants targeting air bases in close proximity to airports and civilian areas.

Security in Iraq has long been a concern, but fears increased in January after twin suicide attacks in Baghdad killed 15 people and wounded at least 32 others. Since then, there has been a wave of recent rocket attacks, including at least 10 that happened Wednesday, aimed at American targets.

Some Iraqi government and religious officials have voiced concern that the same groups responsible could unleash fresh rocket attacks during Pope Francis’s March 5-8 visit as a sign of disapproval over his scheduled March 6 meeting with top Shiite cleric the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid al-Sistani.

Pope Francis landed in Baghdad Friday afternoon, where he met with Iraqi authorities and addressed the country’s bishops in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.

On Saturday he is scheduled to visit the Plain of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, after which he will have a private meeting with al-Sistani before saying Mass in Baghdad’s cathedral.

On Sunday, he will honor war victims in Mosul and then visit the Christian community in the village of Qaraqosh before concluding the day with Mass in Erbil.

In their security alert, the US embassy advised citizens to seek cover if they hear an explosion, going to the lowest floor of a building or into a room with the least amount of windows and external walls. If outside when an attack takes place, citizens are advised to seek cover under a hard structure, or to lie down and cover their heads, keeping an eye out for falling debris.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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