The Trump administration scrambled to ramp up security at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and tamp down a brewing crisis in the Middle East on Tuesday after an Iran-backed militia launched a brazen attack that briefly breached the walls of the U.S. diplomatic compound in Baghdad.
The protest, led by members of the Iraqi Shiite militia Kataeb Hezbollah, turned violent when demonstrators stormed the U.S. facility and set fire to a reception area inside the embassy complex. Although no casualties were reported, the shocking incident ratcheted up already high tensions between Washington and Tehran, with the government in Baghdad caught squarely in the middle.
The embassy raid was a direct response to U.S. airstrikes over the weekend that targeted militia outposts in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi government criticized the airstrikes, and Iran cast them as an example of American “terrorism” across the region.
In the face of mounting chaos, the Pentagon immediately dispatched Marines from neighboring Kuwait to bolster security at the compound in what it dubbed a “crisis response mission.”
While spending the holidays in Florida, President Trump huddled with lawmakers and key members of his national security team to find a way to ensure the safety of American personnel in Iraq and to keep the situation from spiraling into an all-out war between the U.S. and Iran-backed proxies that have gained increasing power and influence in Iraq. The conflict has also raised questions about the future of some 5,000 U.S. troops still stationed inside Iraq, with a primary mission of preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State group in the region.
The State Department said the protest resulted in no casualties. Ambassador Matthew H. Tueller was traveling over the holidays and was not at the embassy.
But The Associated Press reported Tuesday evening that the protesters had set up tents outside the compound where they said they intended to stage a sit-in. Dozens of yellow flags belonging to Iran-backed Shiite militias fluttered atop the reception area and were plastered along the embassy’s concrete wall along with anti-U.S. graffiti, according to the wire service.
Analysts said the incident was a potent reminder of Iran’s ability to stir the pot and work with proxies and allies across the region to challenge U.S. interests, despite a U.S.-led campaign of economic sanctions designed to contain Tehran.
The president blamed the embassy assault squarely on Iran and vowed that the regime will be held fully responsible for any casualties and damage. He stressed that the U.S. airstrikes Sunday were retaliation for a Kataeb Hezbollah rocket attack last week that killed an American contractor working in Iraq.
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” the president said in a Twitter post. “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!”
U.S. national security leaders stressed that the Baghdad demonstration was a symptom of the much larger issue: growing Iranian control over large portions of Iraq. Although the two countries fought a brutal war in the 1980s, Iran’s Shiite theocracy has numerous economic and religious links to leading Iraqi clerics and officials.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of Iraqi Shiite militias with links to Iran’s military, has raised its influence and political clout in the wake of its role in helping turn back Islamic State control in Iraq.
“It’s a sign of Iranian control over Shia militia groups, not a sign of Iraqi anti-Americanism,” former White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, a noted Iran hawk, said in a Twitter post. “We must protect our citizens from Iranian belligerence.”
Demonstrators at the embassy were said to include many prominent Popular Mobilization Forces militia leaders. The protesters shouted “Down, down USA!” and “Death to America” as they forced their way through outer checkpoints at the facility, set fire to trailers near the entrance and attempted to scale walls and get further into the compound. Iraqi government forces originally did not appear to be containing the protests in the typically heavily restricted Green Zone.
Other protesters sprayed graffiti on the walls and hung a sign in the reception area declaring “America is an aggressor.” Some demonstrators said the assault was merely the beginning.
“This is a victory in retaliation to the American airstrike. This is the initial retaliation. God willing, there will be more,” a fighter with the Imam Ali Brigades identified as Mahmoud told AP.
The Kataeb Hezbollah militia decried the U.S. airstrikes and said the Trump administration is once again trying to blame a Middle East problem on Iraq. The group said its members are key partners in the fight against the Islamic State.
“When the U.S. wants to target a group in Iraq, it attributes them to Iran. The Americans label the Iraqi sons who have confronted the ISIL as affiliated to Iran,” said Kataeb Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Mohei, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency.
Meanwhile, lawmakers urged the administration to take immediate steps to ensure diplomatic personnel, military officials and contractors were safe amid growing unrest. The embassy attack immediately evoked memories of the 2012 assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which claimed the lives of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
“President Trump is determined to protect American personnel and expects our Iraqi partners to step up to the plate. No more Benghazis,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a Twitter post after meeting with Mr. Trump and his national security team in Florida.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke via phone with caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih to emphasize that the protection of American men and women in Baghdad is Iraq’s responsibility. Both Iraqi leaders criticized the U.S. airstrike on the militia bases.
Pentagon leaders sounded a similar note but made clear that they were leaving nothing to chance. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he has ordered the immediate deployment of additional military personnel to protect the embassy and its occupants.
“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,” Mr. Esper said in a statement. “We are sending additional forces to support our personnel at the embassy. 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.”
The deployment reportedly includes 100 Marines, two Apache attack helicopters and other military assets.
Mr. Trump tweeted later in the day that the embassy was safe and thanked top Iraqi leaders for securing the embassy grounds.
Iran, he said, “will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. … This is not a warning, it is a threat.”
Moving forward, some analysts fear that Iraq could become the battleground for a U.S.-Iran war and warn that Tehran and its proxies could resort to increasingly aggressive terrorist acts.
“Should the U.S. and Iran keep fighting in Iraq in this way, Iran might eventually resort to having U.S. citizens kidnapped in the region, the same way it happened in Lebanon during the 1980s,” former CIA intelligence officer Robert Baer told Al Jazeera. “Given the current political and military conditions in Iraq, the U.S. remains vulnerable there.”
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