Supporters of an Iranian-backed militia besieged the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes, breaking through the first layer of security at the embassy compound and damaging a reception area before being expelled by Iraqi security forces.
Here’s what we know:
●The U.S. Defense Department is sending two Apache helicopters and a “small contingent” of Marines to reinforce security at the embassy.
●President Trump accused Iran of “orchestrating an attack” on the embassy, where protesters ransacked a reception area and set fires.
●Iraqi security forces later intervened and set up a barricade, but protesters threw gasoline bombs into the compound.
●The Kataib Hezbollah militia vowed to force the embassy to shut down, and protesters set up tents outside the gates as night fell.
BAGHDAD — Hundreds of angry supporters of an Iranian-backed militia shouting “Death to America” broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday, trapping diplomats inside in response to U.S. airstrikes that killed or wounded scores of militia fighters.
The protesters breached the vast embassy compound’s outer security but did not reach the main chancery building.
Iraqi security forces later intervened, erecting a steel barrier at the smashed gate into the compound’s reception area and forcing the protesters to leave. However, protesters remained outside the gates, taunting the guards inside with chants denouncing America, attempting to tear down razor wire atop the compound’s walls and tossing molotov cocktails over them.
After darkness fell, some of the protesters stormed and burned the embassy’s second reception gate, as others set up tents for the night beside the embassy gates. They vowed to stay until all U.S. troops and diplomats leave Iraq.
They did not, however, enter the sprawling embassy compound, where diplomats and embassy staff sought refuge in a reinforced safe room.
President Trump responded angrily Tuesday to the protesters’ actions, charging that Iran was behind a deadly militia attack that led to the airstrikes and blaming Tehran for the embassy siege.
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many,” Trump tweeted from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “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 added later in a separate tweet: “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!”
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the Pentagon has taken “appropriate force-protection actions to ensure the safety of American citizens, military personnel and diplomats” in Iraq “and to ensure our right of self-defense.” He added in a statement: “We are sending additional forces to support our personnel at the Embassy.”
As the chaos erupted, U.S. military officials were left to determine how to respond without further inflaming the situation. They settled on dispatching two of the Army’s Apache gunship helicopters to provide overwatch and security, and deploying scores of Marines from a crisis-response unit in Kuwait to reinforce those already guarding the embassy.
Earlier, angry demonstrators defied appeals delivered over loudspeakers by the group’s leaders not to enter the embassy compound and smashed their way into one of the facility’s reception areas, breaking down fortified doors and bulletproof glass and setting fire to the room.
American guards inside the embassy fired tear gas to keep the militia supporters at bay. U.S. troops could be seen nearby and on rooftops, their weapons drawn, but they did not open fire. Embassy civil defense workers just inside the gates attempted to put out the fires with water hoses.
The protesters also smashed security cameras, set two guardrooms ablaze and burned tires. They made a bonfire out of a pile of papers and military MREs (meals ready to eat) found in the reception area, where guards normally search visitors. Kataib Hezbollah flags were draped over the razor wire protecting the embassy’s high walls.
The embassy’s sirens wailed continually as dense black smoke billowed into the air.
Inside the embassy, U.S. diplomats and embassy staffers were huddled in a fortified safe room, according to two reached by a messaging app. They declined to give details but added that they felt secure.
By early afternoon, tensions had eased somewhat after an Iraqi army commander showed up and ordered Iraqi security forces, who had initially made no attempt to intervene, to prevent the demonstrators going farther inside the facility. The security forces formed an impromptu buffer between the demonstrators and the American guards inside.
Shortly after that, acting Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi appealed for calm and urged the demonstrators to refrain from entering the compound. He said in a statement that it is the government’s responsibility to protect foreign embassies.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Abdul Mahdi and Iraqi President Barham Salih separately by phone Tuesday and “made clear the United States will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. “Both Abdul Mahdi and Salih assured the secretary that they took seriously their responsibility for, and would guarantee the safety and security of, U.S. personnel and property,” she said.
The State Department said later that “U.S. personnel are secure” and that “there are no plans” to evacuate the embassy. U.S. Ambassador Matt Tueller was away on previously scheduled personal travel and is returning to the embassy, it said.
In his statement announcing the dispatch of reinforcements to the embassy, Esper noted: “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.”
Marines from the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group are tasked with guarding U.S. embassies around the world. The additional Marines heading to Baghdad will reinforce those who were already there guarding the embassy.
To former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Douglas A. Silliman, Tuesday’s protests appeared to reflect an effort by “pro-Iranian elements to try to take advantage of what they’re going to define as a disproportionate American response to the killing of an American military contractor and to Iraqi police officials.” He added, “This is not a massive popular anti-American demonstration.”
Rather, he said in an interview in Washington, it “appears to be an attempt by Iran and pro-Iran factions in Iraq to take pressure off of themselves” because massive demonstrations in the past few months “have been anti-Iranian and anti-government corruption and anti-militia.”
The embassy compound lies inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, which is normally off limits to ordinary people. But earlier in the morning, thousands of people walked unimpeded into the zone to join the demonstrations. Iraqi security forces simply mingled with the crowd, and some joined in. One member of the force that guards the zone’s checkpoints was photographed helping the militia supporters smash the bulletproof glass at the embassy reception gate.
Their chants of “Death to America” carried echoes of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when Iranian students seized control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and detained American diplomats and other personnel for 444 days.
Many were wearing militia uniforms and carried flags signifying their allegiance to the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which had vowed to retaliate for the U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 militia members.
Among the crowd were some of Iran’s most powerful allies in Iraq, including Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization; Qais al-Khazali, who heads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia and was once imprisoned by the U.S. military; and Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who spent years in prison in Kuwait for bombing the U.S. Embassy there.
The demonstrators daubed graffiti on the embassy walls signifying their allegiance to Iran: the names of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and powerful Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Other slogans simply read: “America get out.”
Some protesters began erecting tents nearby, indicating that they intend to remain for the long haul. Jaafar al-Husseini, a Kataib Hezbollah spokesman, said the group plans to encamp outside the embassy until it closes and all U.S. diplomats and troops leave Iraq.
U.S. Embassy officials did not respond to requests for comment, and it was not immediately clear how many U.S. diplomats or troops were trapped inside the 104-acre compound, the largest U.S. diplomatic facility in the world. Opened with much fanfare over a decade ago as a projection of American influence in Iraq, on Tuesday it seemed as much a symbol of U.S. vulnerability in a country where Washington now has few friends.
The demonstration comes amid an outpouring of rage in Iraq directed against the United States for carrying out airstrikes Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases near the Iraqi-Syrian border. The strikes were in response to the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack last Friday on a base housing U.S. troops in Kirkuk. The United States blamed the rocket attack on the Iranian-backed group.
U.S. officials said the airstrikes were “defensive” and aimed at deterring further rocket attacks against U.S. personnel by Iranian allies in Iraq.
But in Iraq they have been widely denounced as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and of the rules governing the presence of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops based there to help in the fight against the Islamic State.