CAPITOL HILL - Shahla Arasteh and Carla Babb contributed to this report.
CAPITOL HILL - The United States on Wednesday ordered its non-emergency employees to leave Iraq, as American lawmakers worried openly about a potential march to war with Iran.
The drawdown of personnel at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and America's consulate in Irbil comes as the Trump administration warns of potential threats against American forces in the Middle East from Iran or Iranian-backed proxies.
The move sparked sharp reactions on Capitol Hill.
"There are only two reasons for ordering their departure: we have credible intelligence that our people are at risk - or in preparation for military action in Iran," the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said. "The Trump administration has not provided any information to this committee on the intelligence behind their decisions or what they plan to do in Iraq or Iran."
Menendez demanded the Trump administration bring the panel's members up to date on "any plans to go to war with Iran."
The committee's chairman, Republican James Risch of Idaho, said that he, personally, has been briefed on the unfolding situation in the Middle East and that a briefing of the full U.S. Senate was "in the works."
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The United States is not alone in curtailing activities in Iraq. Germany and the Netherlands say they are suspending military training operations in the country, although Berlin says it had no signals of its own that a threat against Western interests in Iraq was imminent. The Dutch government cited an unspecified security threat in curtailing its training operations.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday rejected a report that he is considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran, but didn't rule out deploying 'a lot more' soldiers in the future.
'I think it's fake news,' Trump said of a New York Times report that the White House is considering a plan to send 120,000 troops to the region.
'Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that,' Trump said.
The Pentagon has already dispatched an aircraft carrier and nuclear-capable bomber planes to the region in the last few days, with a Patriot missile battery and a landing platform dock ship on the way. The Patriot system offers protection from aircraft and missiles, while the LPD carries Marines and the aircraft, hovercraft, or boats needed to put them ashore to fight in distant places.
Meanwhile, a senior officer in the U.S.-led military coalition combating Islamic State said Tuesday he had seen no greater recent threat to its troops in Iraq or Syria from forces backed by Iran.
'There's been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,' British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika told reporters at the Pentagon in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad. 'We're aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them, along with a whole range of others because that's the environment we're in.'
The statement was in contrast to comments from the Trump administration and the Pentagon, who have asserted for more than a week that they have detected potential Iranian threats against U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Such assertions face increasingly rigorous scrutiny from lawmakers.
"This seems like an escalation with no endgame," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said, describing the pressure campaign on Tehran as "ham-handed" [clumsy].
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, meanwhile, pressed a Pentagon official on the constitutionally-mandated steps for America to go to war.
"Do you believe the president has the authority to wage war with Iran without congressional authorization?" Paul asked at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "Can we have a full-scale waging of war with Iran without congressional authorization?"
"Only the Congress has the responsibility, the authority to declare war," responded the Defense Department's deputy undersecretary for policy, David Trachtenberg.
Right," Paul said. "So the answer is [that] the president can't do it."