Iraqi Protesters Break Into U.S. Embassy After Airstrikes; Ambassador Evacuated

Mourners march on Iraqi capital's heavily fortified Green Zone after funerals for 25 Iran-backed fighters killed in American airstrikes

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Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) fighters set fire on the U.S. Embassy wall to condemn air strikes on their bases, in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019.
Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) fighters set fire on the U.S. Embassy wall to condemn air strikes on their bases, in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019.Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS

Dozens of angry Iraqi Shi'ite militia supporters have broken into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad Tuesday after smashing a door and storming inside, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. 

Iraqi protesters march to U.S. embassy after airstrike kills 25 Iran-backed fighters

Security guards inside the embassy fired stun grenades at protesters outside the gates of the compound. Reuters correspondents said they heard four loud bangs.

Medical sources said 12 militiamen were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

Taking to Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump held Iran responsible for the attack, saying it will be held "fully responsible. "    

Protesters burn property and wave militia flags in front of the U.S. Embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019.
Protesters burn property and wave militia flags in front of the U.S. Embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019.Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP

Earlier, the U.S. ambassador and other staff were evacuated from the embassy as protests tried to storm the embassy, Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials told Reuters.

This follows Sunday's deadly from an Iran-backed Shiite militia in Iraq.

Iraqi security forces fired teargas the embassy to disperse protesters who had gathered to condemn American air strikes in Iraq.

The protesters stormed a security kiosk at the entrance of the embassy, torching it before leaving, three witnesses told Reuters.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw flames rising from inside the compound and at least three U.S. soldiers on the roof of the embassy. It was not clear what caused the fire at the reception area near the parking lot of the compound. A man on a loudspeaker urged protesters not to enter the compound: “The message was delivered.”

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The gate that was smashed was a side-entrance, one used by cars to enter the embassy compound. Hundreds of protesters had pushed about 5 meters (16 feet) into a corridor that leads to the main building but the protesters were still about 200 meters (yards) away from it.

The protesters hanged a poster on the wall: “America is an aggressor.”

Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. Embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, December 31, 2019.
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. Embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, December 31, 2019.Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP

The ambassador and staff left out of security concerns. One official said a few embassy protection staff remained, and security guards were seen retreating to the inside of the embassy. 

Hundreds of angry demonstrators smashed security cameras on the wall around embassy, hurled stones and set up protest tents there. They raised militia flags and taunted the embassy's security staff who remained behind the glass windows in the gates' reception area. They sprayed graffiti on the wall and windows in red in support of the Kataeb Hezbollah militia: “Closed in the name of the resistance.”

There were no reports of casualties, but the unprecedented breach was one of the worst attacks on the embassy in recent memory.

Shouting “Down, Down USA!” the crowd tried to push inside the embassy grounds, hurling water bottles and smashing security cameras outside.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi warned against any aggression towards foreign embassies and representations in Baghdad, asking protesters outside the U.S. embassy to leave.

Mahdi, who is caretaker prime minister under pressure from street protests, said in a statement that any aggression against foreign embassies would be stopped by security forces and punished harshly in law. 

The U.S. military against the Iranian-backed Kataeb Hezbollah militia, calling it retaliation for last week's killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that it blamed on the group.

The U.S. attack — the largest targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia in recent years — and the calls for retaliation, represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the U.S. and playing out in the Middle East.

‏Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior militia leaders were among the protesters. Kataeb Hezbollah flags were hung on the fence surrounding the building.

Tuesday's attempted embassy storming took place after mourners held funerals for the militia fighters killed in a Baghdad neighborhood, after which they marched on to the heavily fortified Green Zone and kept walking till they reached the sprawling U.S. Embassy there.

AP journalists then saw the crowd try to storm the embassy, shouting “Down, down USA!” and “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”

Security guards were seen retreating to the inside of the embassy.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strikes send the message that the U.S. will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardize American lives.

The Iranian-backed Iraqi militia had vowed Monday to retaliate for the U.S. military strikes in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 of its fighters and wounded dozens. The attack and vows for revenge raised concerns of new attacks that could threaten American interests in the region.

The U.S. attack outraged both the militias and the Iraqi government which said it will reconsider its relationship with the U.S.-led coalition — the first time it has said it will do so since an agreement was struck to keep some U.S. troops in the country. It called the attack a “flagrant violation" of its sovereignty.

In a partly televised meeting Monday, the Iraqi prime minister told Cabinet members that he had tried to stop the U.S. operation “but there was insistence" from American officials.

The U.S. military said "precision defensive strikes" were conducted against five sites of the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq and Syria. The group, which is a separate force from the Lebanese militant group , operates under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Many of them are supported by Iran.

Iraqis are taking to the streets in their thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as the Kataeb Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government.

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