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Iraq boosts security measures at air base that houses U.S. troops

FILE - in this Monday, July 20, 2015 file photo, a member of the Iraqi SWAT team stands guard as security forces and others gather next to a U.S.- made F-16 fighter jet during the delivery ceremony at Balad air base, Iraq.
FILE - in this Monday, July 20, 2015 file photo, a member of the Iraqi SWAT team stands guard as security forces and others gather next to a U.S.- made F-16 fighter jet during the delivery ceremony at Balad air base, Iraq. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

Security measures were increased at one of Iraq’s largest air bases that houses American trainers following an attack last week, a top Iraqi air force commander said Saturday. The U.S. military said operations at the base were going on as usual and there were currently no plans to evacuate personnel.

The stepped-up Iraqi security measures at Balad air base, just north of the capital, Baghdad, come amid sharply rising tensions in the Middle East between the United States and Iran.

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The current regional crisis is rooted in the U.S. withdrawal last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. Washington subsequently re-imposed sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into freefall and cutting deeply into its oil exports.

Gen. Falah Fares told The Associated Press by telephone that the measures include a night-time curfew, boosting security inside and near the base as well as surveillance of nearby areas. He said these measures are being carried out in co-ordination with the U.S.

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“All unnecessary movements have been reduced,” Fares said, adding that the curfew now lasts from sunset until sunrise. He said the change was made after Balad air base, home to a squadron of Iraqi F-16 fighter jets, was hit with three mortar shells last week without inflicting casualties. The curfew had previously been from midnight to sunrise, he said.

Col. Kevin Walker, U.S. Air Forces Central Command Director of Force Protection, denied in a statement later Saturday reports that U.S. forces are evacuating contractors or any other personnel from Balad air base.

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“Operations at Balad Air Base are continuing as normal. Claims that personnel are being evacuated are categorically false,” Walker said. “There are no plans at this time to evacuate any personnel from Balad.”

“The safety and security of all Air Force personnel and those that provide services to the U.S. Air Force are constantly evaluated, and should there be increased threats to our people, the U.S. Air Force will put measures in place to provide the protections required,” he said.

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Like neighbouring Iran, Iraq is a Shiite-majority country, and has been trying to maintain a fine line between allies Tehran and Washington. There have been concerns that Baghdad could once again get caught in the middle, just as it is on the path to recovery.

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Iraq 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.