Thousands of protesters aligned with an Iraqi paramilitary group stormed the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, surrounding some of its buildings and setting fire to one of its gates.
The spasm of rage comes two days after U.S. warplanes struck positions of Kataeb Hezbollah, a top paramilitary faction that is backed by Iran. The strikes killed some 25 people and wounded 51 others, Iraqi officials said, and followed a rocket strike last week that killed a U.S. military contractor and which the U.S. blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah.
Sirens blared through Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone as an enraged mob bristling with the green-yellow flag of Kataeb Hezbollah and other factions of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units — a volunteer force of Shiite-dominated armed groups — pelted the embassy with rocks and water bottles.
Others marched, shouted “God is great, and America is the Great Satan,” scaled walls and surrounded a reception area with armed U.S. soldiers standing inside. One protester sprayed “closed by order of the people” on the wall of the embassy’s compound, another held up a sign threatening what they described as the “American enemy.”
Crowds began forming following funeral proceedings earlier on Tuesday for those killed in last week’s strikes, making their way to the Green Zone and passing several checkpoints on their way to the embassy. It was unclear how they had breached the high-security area, which is home to a number of embassies, international non-governmental organizations and Iraqi ministries. (Anti-government protesters demonstrating in recent weeks had been unable to enter.)
As the mob turned violent, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, issued a statement demanding protesters leave the embassy grounds, even as security forces deployed to try to push back the protesters.
“We remind that any attack or harassment of embassies and diplomatic missions is an act that will be strictly prevented by security forces and will be severely punished by the law,” the statement said.
But Abdel Mahdi’s warning had little effect, despite security forces attempting to disperse the protesters with tear gas and stun grenades. Hours later, crowds near the embassy appeared to be growing, while top Iraqi politicians affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Units joined in the fray, including the government’s national security advisor; Qais Khazali, leader of the Asaeb Ahl al-Haq faction; Jamal Ibrahimi; deputy of the militias’ grouping; and Hadi Ameri, head of the Badr organization. All are seen as important allies of Tehran in the country.
“This protest was to deliver a message that this embassy should be closed and that the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is illegitimate,” said Kataeb Hezbollah spokesman Mohammad Muhi in a phone interview on Tuesday. He added that the U.S. strikes were “a crime” that “violated Iraqi sovereignty, insulted Iraqi dignity and made light of Iraqis’ blood.”
There are roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and an unknown number of contractors involved in anti-Islamic State operations as well as in train and assist missions with Iraqi security forces. Their presence has long been a perennial target for Iraqi politicians aligned with Tehran.
President Trump condemned the unrest near the embassy while blaming it on Iran.
“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,” he tweeted.
“They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”
Tuesday’s unrest comes amid weeks of anti-government demonstrations that saw Iraqis across the country call for the ouster of Iraq’s ruling class and an end to interference in the country’s affairs by the U.S. and Iran. (Since 2003, Tehran and Washington have tussled for influence in Iraq.)
The Popular Mobilization Units, which include Kataeb Hezbollah, are seen as a part of Iran’s influence, even though they have been reluctant partners of the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State.
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