Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias withdraw after protests at US embassy in Baghdad

Protesters and militia fighters withdraw from the perimeter of the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020.
Protesters and militia fighters withdraw from the perimeter of the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups who stormed the US embassy's perimeter and hurled rocks during two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops and threatened reprisals against Tehran.


The demonstrators, angry at US air strikes against the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group that killed at least 25 people, threw stones at the building while US forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.

But by mid-afternoon, most appeared to have obeyed a call to withdraw, issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mainly Shiite militia, which said the demonstrators' message had been heard.

Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound, while others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.


Iraq's military said all protesters had left by the evening.

Meanwhile the US embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday said consular services were suspended until further notice. “Due to militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all public consular operations are suspended until further notice.  All future appointments are cancelled.  U.S. citizens are advised to not approach the Embassy,” said a statement posted on the embassy website.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also cancelled a plan trip to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Cyprus “due to the need for the secretary to be in Washington, DC to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East," a State Department spokeswoman said Wednesday.


Iraq caught in US-Iran shadow war

The protests mark a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.

US President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020, on Tuesday threatened to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.

The unrest followed US air raids on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a US contractor in northern Iraq last week.

On Tuesday, crowds chanted 'Death to America!', lit fires, and smashed surveillance cameras. They breached an outer perimeter of the embassy but did not enter the main compound.

Entering the highly secured ‘Green Zone’

The huge embassy compound, built along the banks of the Tigris River in central Baghdad's fortified "Green Zone" during American occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam
Hussein, is the biggest US diplomatic mission in the world.

While Iraqi protesters staging anti-government demonstrations over the last few months have been unable to enter the green zone, the ease with which Shiite militia and their supporters accessed the embassy compound has raised questions about the Iraqi government’s security abilities.

Washington said its diplomats were safe and was rushing hundreds of extra troops to the region.

The anti-American action comes after months of protests in Iraq against the government and the Iran-backed militias that support it. Many Iraqis complain their country has become a battlefield for a proxy war for influence between Washington and Tehran, and their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.

Iraq's government has long faced frictions in its close relations with the two foes. Trump spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday and demanded Iraq protect the embassy.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday condemned the US attacks. Iran summoned a Swiss envoy, who represents US interests in Tehran, to complain about what it described as "warmongering" words from Washington.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

US officials said 750 extra troops would initially be based out of Kuwait and as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in coming days.

More than 5,000 US troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces. The air strikes have galvanised calls inside Iraq to expel them.

Many in the crowd outside the embassy said ending Washington's presence in Iraq was their main goal.

‘You delivered your message’

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iran-backed militias and US forces found themselves on the same side during Iraq's 2014-2017 war against Islamic State (IS) group fighters, with both powers helping the government recapture territory from militants who had overrun a third of Iraq.

Since then, US troops have yet to leave, while the Iran-backed militias have been incorporated into the security forces.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people were killed, is backed by Iran and its allies.

The militia may have decided to pull back from the embassy to avoid making him look weak or to avert clashes with government forces.

Overnight, demonstrators had pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls, then brought food, cooking equipment and mattresses during the morning, indicating plans to stay before the withdrawal call.

But by Wednesday afternoon, the PMU called on its supporters to leave the embassy and gather outside the Green Zone out of "respect" for the state.

"You delivered your message," it said in a statement. 

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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