President Trump blamed Iran after demonstrators breached the compound’s outer wall. Tensions are high after American airstrikes killed members of an Iran-backed militia.
By Falih Hassan, Ben Hubbard and Alissa J. Rubin (Reprinted With Permission)
BAGHDAD — Protesters broke into the heavily guarded compound of the United States Embassy in Baghdad Tuesday (Dec. 31) and set fires inside in anger over American airstrikes that killed 24 members of an Iranian-backed militia over the weekend.
The men did not enter the main embassy buildings and later withdrew from the compound, joining thousands of protesters and militia fighters outside chanting “Death to America,” throwing rocks, covering the walls with graffiti and demanding that the United States withdraw its forces from Iraq.
The situation remained combustible, with the crowd vowing to camp indefinitely outside the sprawling compound, the world’s largest embassy. Their ability to storm the most heavily guarded zone in Baghdad suggested that they had received at least tacit permission from Iraqi security officials sympathetic to their demands.
Trump, faced with scenes of unfolding chaos at an American embassy, lashed out against Iran, which he blamed for the protests.
“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” he said in a tweet. “They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning; it is a Threat. Happy New Year!” He also spoke with Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi about the need to protect Americans and American facilities.
Speaking with reporters in an impromptu exchange Tuesday night at his Mar-a- Lago estate in Florida, Mr. Trump said he thought his administration had handled the situation in Iraq “very well.” Asked about the possibility of war, Mr. Trump said, “I don’t think that would be a good idea for Iran,” adding, “I want to have peace, I like peace. And Iran should want peace more than anybody.”
Roughly 750 additional American troops will deploy to the region immediately, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said late Tuesday. “This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities,” he said. The troops are likely to deploy to Kuwait.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone with Mr. Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Salih in separate calls, and “made clear the United States will protect and defend its people,” according to a summary of the call from the State Department. It said that the Iraqi leaders “assured the secretary that they took seriously their responsibility” to safeguard American officials and property.
The State Department said that American personnel were safe and that there were no plans to evacuate the embassy. The ambassador, Matt Tueller, had been traveling and was not at the embassy when it was breached on Tuesday.
The American airstrikes Sunday have resulted in the most serious political crisis in years for the United States in Iraq, stoking anti- Americanism and handing an advantage to Iran in its competition for influence in the country. The airstrikes targeted an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, Kataib Hezbollah, which the United States accused of carrying out a missile attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor and wounded American and Iraqi service members.
A spokesman for the militia denied involvement in the attack.
But the size of the American response — five strikes in Iraq and Syria that killed two dozen fighters and wounded dozens of others — prompted condemnation from across the political spectrum in Iraq, and accusations that the United States had violated Iraqi sovereignty.
It also drew sharp criticism and serious threats of reprisals from Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias.
The fact that the Iraqi government permitted militia members to enter the fortified Green Zone on Tuesday, allowing the protest to happen, demonstrated Iran’s powerful influence as well as the government’s difficulty in controlling the militias.
But the Iraqi leadership’s success in averting a deeper incursion into the embassy compound and preventing any confrontation with American personnel suggested that the government may have intended to allow the militias to vent their anger with minimal damage.
The United States military made a show of force in response to the turmoil, with helicopter gunships circling overhead.
From inside the compound, loudspeakers warned the crowd outside to keep away from the walls.
The protest began Tuesday morning when thousands of militia members gathered outside the Green Zone after prayer services for the fighters killed in the American strikes.
While few of them were armed, many were members of Kataib Hezbollah and other fighting groups that are technically overseen by the Iraqi military. Kataib Hezbollah is separate from the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, although both groups are backed by Iran and oppose the United States.
When the protesters pushed toward the entrance to the Green Zone, a heavily guarded district of government offices and embassies in central Baghdad, the Iraqi security forces did not stop them.
Their accession to the protesters was a marked contrast to their treatment of the antigovernment protesters who have been demonstrating outside the Green Zone for months. Those protesters were met with tear gas and bullets and have not been able to enter the Green Zone.
Once at the embassy, the protesters on Tuesday used long poles to shatter security cameras. They covered the compound walls with anti-American graffiti and set a guardhouse on fire.
After breaking open a compound entrance, dozens of men entered and lit more fires while embassy security guards watched them from the embassy roof and fired tear gas. One group of protesters ended up separated from United States troops by only a pane of glass, according to a video shared on social media.
It was not immediately clear how many Americans were inside the compound, but officials said they sheltered in place and were unhurt.
The embassy complex, which opened in 2009 and cost an estimated $736 million to build, covers 104 acres, nearly as big as Vatican City, the world’s smallest country.
By 2012, nearly 16,000 people worked there — most of them contractors, but also diplomats, military personnel, intelligence officers and aid workers — but the staff declined sharply over the following years.
The embassy and an American consulate in Erbil, in northern Iraq, now have a combined staff of 486 people, with the majority in Baghdad.
The scenes there on Tuesday stirred memories of the seizure of two searing, politically consequential events in recent American history: the seizure of the embassy and 52 hostages in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the assault on a United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
As a congressman, Mr. Pompeo became a political star among Republicans for blistering criticism of Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, over the Benghazi attack, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Mr. Trump also had Benghazi in mind, calling the Baghdad attack “the anti-Benghazi.” The protesters eventually left the Baghdad compound, but some climbed on top of adjacent buildings, where they planted militia flags.
Iraqi police and military personnel eventually arrived at the scene, but they did not disperse the protesters. The Iraqi interior minister, Yassin al-Yasiri, said in an interview near the embassy that American attacks on an Iraqi militia had invited trouble. “These are the dangerous ramifications of this strike,” he said. “What happened today is the danger that we were afraid of, and that the Americans should have been afraid of.”
While the protesters carried the flags of Iraq and a range of militia groups, the most prominent was that of Kataib Hezbollah, the group targeted by the United States.
A spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, Mohammed Muhi, said his group intended to erect tents in the street in front of the United States Embassy for an opened-ended sit-in to pressure the Americans to leave Iraq.
“We will not leave these tents until the embassy and the ambassador leave Iraq,” Mr. Muhi said.
Falih Hassan reported from Baghdad, Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon, and Alissa J. Rubin from Paris. Edward Wong and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from Washington.