US troops inside Baghdad embassy after protesters throng gates

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Iraqi PM Adil Abdul Mahdi said crowds that had stormed the US embassy in anger at deadly US air strikes should leave the compound “immediately”.

US soldiers fire tear gas towards protesters who broke into the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019.

Security guards inside the US embassy in Baghdad fired stun grenades at protesters outside the gates of the compound on Tuesday.

It came after dozens of angry Iraqi protesters broke into the US embassy compound in Baghdad, shouting “down, down USA”, smashing through a door and storming inside, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire.

Reuters correspondents heard four loud bangs.

The US military carried out the strikes on Sunday 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.

Thousands of protesters and militia fighters gathered outside the main gate of the embassy compound to condemn US air strikes on bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq.

The US ambassador and other staff have been evacuated from the embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as protests rage outside, two Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials said on Tuesday.

The ambassador and staff left out of security concerns. One official said a few embassy protection staff remained.

Only a small amount of teargas was used and militia forces, using loud speakers, urged the crowd to disperse, a Reuters witness said.

Iraq PM demands protesters leave US embassy

Iraq’s caretaker premier Adil Abdul Mahdi said that crowds that had stormed the US embassy should leave the compound “immediately”.

“We recall that any aggression or harassment of foreign embassies will be firmly prohibited by the security forces,” Abdel Mahdi’s office said several hours after the attack began.

Seven armoured vehicles with about 30 Iraqi soldiers arrived near the embassy hours after the violence erupted, deploying near the embassy walls but not close to the breached area.

There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon and the State Department on the breach of the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The US 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 US and Iran playing out in the Middle East.

Tuesday’s attempted embassy storming took place after mourners held funerals for the militia fighters who were killed in a Baghdad neighbourhood, after which they marched onto the heavily fortified Green Zone and kept walking till they reached the sprawling US Embassy there.

US will not tolerate actions by Iran

AP journalists at the scene 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.

Protesters also were seen hanging yellow flags belonging to the Kataib Hezbollah militia backed by Iran on the walls of the embassy.

Kataib Hezbollah had vowed on Monday to retaliate for the US military strikes. The attack and vows for revenge raised concerns of new attacks that could threaten US interests in the region.

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

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

In a partly televised meeting on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi told Cabinet members that he had tried to stop the US operation “but there was insistence” from American officials.

The US military said “precision defensive strikes” were conducted against five sites of Kataib Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq and Syria.

The group, which is a separate force from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, operates under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Unit. Many of them are supported by Iran.

US senator blames Iran

US Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Iran was responsible for the disorder.

Qais al Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al Haq militia, and many other senior militia leaders were among the protesters.

“Americans are unwanted in Iraq. They are a source of evil and we want them to leave,” Khazali told Reuters. Khazali is one of the most feared and respected Shia militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

Militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al Mohandes, and Badr Organisation leader Hadi al Amiri were also at the protest.

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