Thousand of Iraqis attacked and disrupted the US embassy in Baghdad Dec. 31 in protest against a US airstrike that reportedly killed 25 members of the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah. The US government is now sending additional soldiers. Protesters marched through checkpoints that regulate access to the highly secured Green Zone in the city, shouted “America is the Great Satan,” burned US flags and hoisted the yellow flags of Hezbollah in front of the walls of the embassy.
US Embassy Staff Are Reportedly Safe
US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller and his staff have been brought to safety under Iraqi government protection. Only a few security forces at the embassy were left behind as dozens of supporters of the Iraqi-Shiite militia stormed the area.
Iraqi security forces had tried unsuccessfully to stop the demonstrators. When water bottles were thrown and surveillance cameras destroyed, the teams withdrew. In the city center of Baghdad, which is home to numerous ministries and embassies, further demonstrators gathered and tried to march towards the US embassy. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi urged people to withdraw immediately. Any aggression against foreign representations will be severely punished, he said.
As early as Sunday night Dec. 29, protests against the USA took place in the predominantly Shiite cities of Basra and Najaf. Just as in Baghdad, demonstrators set fire to US flags and shouted anti-American slurs. Similar scenes were reported from Kirkuk in the north.
US Sec Def Esper: Necessary Measures Will Be Taken
In response to the anti-US actions rocking the country, the US military sent additional troops to secure diplomatic representation in the country. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that measures would be taken to ensure the safety of US citizens, diplomats, and military personnel. He made no statement about how many soldiers and what equipment would be sent as reinforcements, although 100 US Marines and two Apache helicopters were deployed to the embassy area in Baghdad Tuesday night.
US Secretary of State Pompeo made calls to the Iraqi leadership vowing that the US government would “protect and defend” its citizens in Iraq. Both Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi and President Barham Salih have reportedly assured Pompeo that Iraq takes its responsibility seriously to ensure the security of US troops and facilities.
President Trump’s Reaction
Meanwhile, President Trump blamed Iran for the riots in a tweet saying the Iranians would be “held fully responsible.” The alleged triggers of the current riots are the US airstrikes the previous week when the Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq and Syria was bombed. Twenty-five casualties and fifty injured individuals were reported by the group. The militia backed by Iran has announced it will retaliate for the attacks.
The Pentagon said the US airstrikes were a response to a rocket attack on a military facility near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, in which an employee of a company commissioned by the US Department of Defense was killed on Friday. Washington considers the Hezbollah brigades to be responsible for the attack.
The Tense Situation In Iraq Just Got Even Tenser
The embassy in Baghdad is the largest US embassy worldwide and was officially opened in January 2009. In May, the State Department temporarily withdrew some of its embassy staff and consulate staff in Erbil in northern Iraq due to security concerns. Soon after, in September, the Baghdad embassy was also hit by two rockets in an apparent terrorist attack.
The embassy attacks and protests occur amid a tense situation between the US and Iran but also demonstrate that sixteen years after the US liberated Iraq from the dictatorial reign of Saddam Hussein, resentments and hate towards the US remain strong in the region. At the same time, fraternization with terrorist groups like Hezbollah remains a part of Iraq’s modern political landscape.