Iraqi Protesters Storm U.S. Embassy
Amid protests over American airstrikes, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has become a target.
As we mark the final hours of the year and the decade, the American embassy in Baghdad, supposedly the most secure embassy in the world, finds itself under siege from anti-American protesters:
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.
Tensions eased somewhat later in the day after Iraqi security forces intevenened, erecting a steel barrier at the smashed gate into the compound’s reception area and forcing the protesters to leave the compound. However, protesters periodically threw molotov cocktails over the compound’s walls and tried to tear down their barbed wire, as guards inside fired stun grenades at them.
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!”
A spokesman for the Kataib Hezbollah militia said the demonstrators intend to besiege the embassy until the facility shuts down and U.S. diplomats leave Iraq.
But the 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 barbed 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.
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, as many Iraqi security forces simply mingled with the crowd.
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 there for 444 days.
The impetus for the protests was an American airstrike that was ostensibly in retaliation for the death of an American contractor:
Iraq has been caught for years in a tug of war between its two most powerful patrons, the United States and Iran. In recent months, public opinion began to tilt against Iran, with street protests demanding an end to Tehran’s pervasive influence.
But American airstrikes that killed two dozen members of an Iranian-backed militia over the weekend have now made Washington the focus of public hostility, reducing the heat on Tehran and its proxies.
Iraqi leaders accused the United States on Monday of violating Iraq’s sovereignty and expressed fear that increasing tensions between the United States and Iran could escalate into a proxy war on Iraqi soil.
Even the tenor of the street protests has shifted, as anti-Iranian slogans have given way to anti-American ones. Demonstrators and others attacked what they deemed to be America’s disproportionate response — the killing of 24 militiamen on Sunday in retaliation for the death of an American contractor on Friday.
By day’s end there were calls to end the “American occupation” and demands for the American military to leave Iraq.
For Iran, the reversal comes at an opportune moment, as it has faced pushback around the region and unrest and economic distress at home.
The American airstrikes on the militia’s bases in Iraq and Syria on Sunday wounded 50 people in addition to those killed, the militia, Kataib Hezbollah, said Monday.
The United States said the strikes were a reprisal for the more than 30 rockets Kataib Hezbollah launched against an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk on Friday, killing the American contractor and wounding four American and two Iraqi servicemen.
“What we did is take a decisive response that makes clear what President Trump has said for months and months and months,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday, “which is that we will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy.”
Despite the American justification, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called the airstrikes “a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation and threat to the security of Iraq and the region.”
Iraq’s chief Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the American attack and warned that the government must “ensure that Iraq does not become a field for settling regional and international scores.”
Even if the American attack was “retaliation for illegal actions,” he said, the Iraqi authorities should deal with them, not the Americans.
While there has been some criticism of the militias’ attacks on Iraqi bases where Americans are stationed, most objections are now being leveled at the United States. The populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, for instance, urged the militias to abandon “irresponsible actions,” saying he would work with them to use legal and political means to kick out the Americans.
Analysts also said the scale of the American attack — on five sites in two countries with two dozen people killed — made it likely that Kataib Hezbollah would feel compelled to respond and could rally anti-Americanism.
“Is that deterrence, or is this really risking the whole of the U.S. presence in Iraq?” asked Emma Sky, a senior fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
The United States may have been trying to send a message that killing Americans was a red line not to be crossed, said Ranj Alaaldin, director of the Proxy Wars Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar. But the toll of its attack was likely to yield “more intense and expanded operations” against Americans.
“What the U.S. intended and what the U.S. will get could be two very different things,” he said.
On some level, it’s poetic that the 2010s are ending this way. When the decade began, we were still dealing with the aftereffects of the Iraq War. Within two years, the last American troops would leave the country as the agreement to base American troops there negotiated between Baghdad and the Bush Administration came to an end. Little did we know we’d be back in only a few short years fighting an organization called ISIS that rose up from the ashes of the pro-Saddam military as well as militia groups that had seemingly disappeared in the final years of the American occupation. While ISIS has been largely defeated in its incarnation as the so-called “Islamic State” it remains a powerful force on the ground in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, the power vacuum created by the fall of Saddam Hussein has been filled by neighboring Iran, which has increased its influence in Iraq and throughout the Middle East significantly. This has happened notwithstanding the sanctions that the United States has imposed on it, many of which were put back in place when President Trump foolishly decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal that was largely succeeding in keeping the Islamic Republic’s nuclear research program under international observation and monitoring. It is that influence that is leading to much of the unrest we’re seeing in Iraq today.
With respect to this particular protest, existing security is being supplemented by American and Iraqi forces as we speak so things should be okay in the short term. Over the longer term, though, this doesn’t bode well for Iraq or for the American position there.