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Iraqi Shiite militia supporters attack US embassy compound in Baghdad

Angry protesters outside the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.
Angry protesters outside the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Thaier Al-Sudani, Reuters

Iraqi militia fighters and their supporters enraged by US strikes on an Iran-backed Iraqi militia attacked the US embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday, hurling stones, smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area as security forces and US guards fired tear gas at the protesters.

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The US ambassador to Iraq, Matt Tueller, was away on "personal travel" during the attack, according to a State Department statement, and was returning to the embassy. US personnel at the embassy in Baghdad were safe and there were no evacuation plans, the statement added.

Witnesses said they saw flames rising from inside the compound and at least three US soldiers on the roof of the main embassy building. There was a fire at the reception area near the compound’s parking lot but it was unclear what had caused it. A man on a loudspeaker urged the mob not to enter the compound, saying: “The message was delivered.”

US President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the embassy breach and called on Iraq to protect the diplomatic mission.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!" he tweeted from his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.


Additional US forces being sent to embassy

Hours later, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the Pentagon was sending additional forces to the embassy in Baghdad and called on the Iraqi government to help protect US personnel.

"We have taken appropriate force protection actions to ensure the safety of American citizens, military personnel and diplomats in country, and to ensure our right of self-defense," Esper said in a statement.

"As in all countries, we rely on host nation forces to assist in the protection of our personnel in country, and we call on the Government of Iraq to fulfill its international responsibilities to do so," he added.

Iraq balancing US and Iranian ties

The unprecedented breach was one of the worst attacks on the embassy in recent memory. It followed Sunday’s deadly US airstrikes that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The US military said the air strikes were in retaliation for last week's killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that it had blamed on the militia.

The developments represent a major downturn in Iraq-US relations that could further undermine US influence in the region and also weaken Washington's hand in its maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Iraq has long struggled to balance its ties with the US and Iran, both allies of the Iraqi government. But the government's angry reaction to the US air strikes and its apparent decision not to prevent the protesters from reaching the embassy signaled a sharp deterioration of US-Iraq relations.

‘Death to America’

Iraqi security forces made no effort to stop the protesters as they marched to the heavily-fortified Green Zone after a funeral held for those killed in the US air strikes, letting them pass through a security checkpoint leading to the area.

The mob of marchers, many of them in militia uniforms, shouted “Down, Down USA!” and “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” outside the compound, hurling water and stones over its walls. The mob set fire to three trailers used by security guards along the wall. Some protesters tried to scale the walls.

 

Others then smashed the gates used by cars to enter and dozens pushed into the compound. The protesters stopped in a corridor after about 5 metres (16 feet), and were only about 200 metres away from the main building. Half a dozen US soldiers were seen on the roof of the main building, their guns were pointed at the protesters. Smoke from the tear gas rose in the area.

The protesters raised yellow militia flags and taunted the embassy's security staff who remained behind the glass windows in the gates' reception area. They hung a poster on the wall declaring, “America is an aggressor” and sprayed graffiti on the wall and windows reading, “Closed in the name of the resistance.”

An Iraqi employee at the embassy told the AP that the embassy’s security team had evacuated some local staff from a rear gate while others left by helicopters as the rest remained inside “safe” areas within the embassy. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to speak to journalists.

 

 

 


Some commanders of militia factions loyal to Iran had joined the protesters. Among them was Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the state-sanctioned paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units, the umbrella group for the Iran-backed militias.

At least three protesters appeared to have difficulties breathing from tear gas. No one was immediately reported hurt in the rampage, and security staff had withdrawn to inside the embassy earlier, soon after protesters gathered outside.

‘Embarrassing,’ says Iraqi interior minister

Yassine al-Yasseri, Iraq's interior minister, also appeared outside the embassy at one point and walked around to inspect the scene. He told the AP that the prime minister had warned the US strikes on the Shiite militiamen would have serious consequences.

"This is one of the implications," al-Yasseri said. "This is a problem and is embarrassing to the government."

He said more security will be deployed to separate the protesters from the embassy, an indication the Iraqi troops would not move in to break up the crowd by force.

Seven armored vehicles with about 30 Iraqi soldiers arrived near the embassy hours after the violence erupted, deploying near the embassy walls but not close to the breached area. Four vehicles carrying riot police approached the embassy later but were forced back by the protesters who blocked their path.

There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon and the State Department.

Escalation of proxy war in Iraq

The US air strikes - the largest targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia in recent years - and the subsequent calls by the militia for retaliation, represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the US and Iran playing out in the Middle East.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday's strikes send the message that the US will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardize American lives.

The Iranian-backed Iraqi militia had vowed Monday to retaliate for the US military strikes. The attack and vows for revenge raised concerns of new attacks that could threaten US interests in the region.

The US attack also outraged both the militias and the Iraqi government, which said it will reconsider its relationship with the US-led coalition - the first time it has said it will do so since an agreement was struck to keep some US troops in the country. It called the attack a “flagrant violation" of its sovereignty.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

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