Iraqi Protesters Storm U.S. Embassy

Amid protests over American airstrikes, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has become a target.

Photo via The New York Times

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.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Iran, National Security, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Military intervention win/loss:
    WW2: win.
    Korea: draw.
    Vietnam: loss.
    Panama: win.
    Iraq Part 1: win.
    Mogadishu: loss.
    Afghanistan: loss.
    Iraq Part 2: loss.
    Libya: loss.
    Syria: loss.

    Chronic potential military conflicts: gaining ground or losing ground.
    North Korea: losing.
    South China Sea: losing.
    Iran: losing.
    Russian infowar: losing.

    Regions, up or down:
    Middle East: down.
    Africa: down.
    South and Central America: down.
    Far East: down.
    The Arctic: down.

    Alliances: trending stronger or weaker:
    NATO: weaker.
    The UN: weaker.
    US/South Korea: weaker.
    Israel: stronger.

    Versus our opponents, strengthening or weakening:
    Russia: weakening.
    China: weakening.

    I’m starting to think we really don’t handle foreign policy very well.

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  2. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The Arctic: down.

    We’re working very hard at opening the Northwest Passage. I’m not sure what else you want us to do.

    Also, we met our military objectives in Libya — they were bad objectives that will have a lasting effect on our nonproliferation efforts for decades to come, but we met them.

    And if Libya is major, then so is Kossovo, where we won. So, there’s a bit of cherry picking to make your point.

    Overall, this situation in Iraq shows the limits of what military force can do — it can knock down a leadership, it can knock down well organized opposition to our chosen leaders elsewhere, but it cannot build up support for those chosen leaders.

    And your list shows how much Americans think of foreign policy as military force. Where is TPP on that list, or Trump’s tariffs, or Brexit?

    Every military action is a failure of diplomacy and a failure of foreign policy before we even drop the first bombs. A strong, credible military is an important tool, and we should use it when we have to, but we’ve been reaching for that tool far too often, because we’ve been ignoring other options until they are too late.

    We aren’t acting in the foreign policy sphere so much as we are reacting. And we are reacting in predictable ways that do not advance our long term interests. I almost wrote goals rather than interests, but I don’t think we have goals.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    The Russians are building a fleet of ice breakers for the arctic and are determined to get a military edge there. We’re doing basically nothing. If the Russians are the ones escorting shipping through the arctic, and the ones best able to move naval forces there, who runs the arctic? This is not a small thing, we don’t want Russian subs and surface ships off the coasts of Alaska and northern Canada. We don’t want them able to build bases or to control fisheries or extraction industries there.

    Brexit is not US foreign policy, but British. Tariffs and TPP are part of categories above.

    I just forgot Kosovo, not cherry-picking. I don’t do that. All factual data is welcome. I also left out Granada. But neither alters the overall picture of a superpower that seems incapable of leveraging its power intelligently.

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Our goals should be stability, freedom of navigation, limiting China’s influence, disrupting terrorist organizations, coping with climate, promoting the only legitimate form of government, that which governs by the consent of the governed, and supporting the human rights that flow from democracy.

    Our foreign policy at the moment is licking Putin’s balls and filling Trump’s bank accounts.

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  5. Scott says:

    @Gustopher:

    We’re working very hard at opening the Northwest Passage.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The Russians are building a fleet of ice breakers for the arctic and are determined to get a military edge there.

    We are doing our part and making money at it by preventing any effort to stop spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. Why waste money on ice breakers when we can burn oil for a profit and achieve the same results.

    In a related note, we are generating so much oil and gas that our entire reason for meddling in the Middle East has gone away. Let’s just pull out and let them deal with it.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott:

    In a related note, we are generating so much oil and gas that our entire reason for meddling in the Middle East has gone away. Let’s just pull out and let them deal with it.

    If Trump wanted a legitimate issue to beef with the Europeans over, it’s the ME. They and Japan are the ones who need the oil, and with an EU GDP of 19 trillion, plus Japan’s 5 trillion, they really should be able to manage enough of a navy to ensure free navigation through the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. As to rest of it we have no legitimate interest in the Sunni/Shia, KSA/Iran fight. A pox on them both.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: What use are Russian Ice Breakers when there is no longer ice? I’m sure the Russians have the finest buggy whips too. Flippant, but I don’t worry too much about Russia in international waters. They don’t have a very good navy, as their aircraft carrier demonstrates, and if they want to devote it to relatively peaceful and cooperative endeavors… sure.

    It is absolutely in our interest to have a unified Western Europe, with similar values to our own, that can take on problems in the near regions with goals similar to our own. Just as it is in Russia’s interest to disrupt this. Brexit was largely about British politics, but there is a lot we could have done to put a thumb on the scales, or push some other thumbs off the scales.

    An offhand comment by a respected US president along the lines of “It’s Britain’s decision, of course, but I would be more comfortable with a referendum on the final deal — people didn’t know what they were voting for” would go a long way towards shaping the debate and what is possible. And start a minor kerfluffle about the US interfering in British politics, but I think the potential benefits would outweigh the kerfluffle.

    And I don’t think you’re deliberately cherry picking, I just think it’s hard to remember all our military misadventures, and the ones that went poorly are easier to remember. And I don’t know how to score the drone war.

    But my main point is that foreign policy is too often simplified down to the military, and there are a lot of things the military isn’t good at. And, to some extent, that’s understandable — do we care what happens in Africa if Africa isn’t shooting at us? Well, no, not exactly, but we’re letting conditions fester where people who would be happy to shoot at us are gaining support.

    We haven’t had a real foreign policy since the end of the Cold War — we’ve just been reacting to events, often badly, and almost always predictably. It makes us weak.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I don’t think our foreign policy was that awesome before Trump, but it is now even less of a policy.

    I will give Trump credit for not starting any major wars yet, though. And, I think his disruption of the status quo might be what we need — maintaining Cold War institutions and attitudes after the Cold War hasn’t gone that well.

    The next president is going to have a lot of rebuilding to do, but he/she doesn’t have to rebuild things the same way they were.

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  9. Kathy says:

    There’s kind of a pattern where a successful war begets more military action, while unsuccessful ones dial such things back. Thus after WWII we had Korea and Vietnam, a bloody draw and a bloody quagmire. Then after Gulf War I, we had Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. And then Libya and Syria.

    What concerns me is trump may escalate his way into a war with Iran. Especially with Bibi and the Saudi Butcher whispering in his ear. They may convince him taking out Iran would solve all problems in the region, plus it’s something that Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama singularly failed to do.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Dude, there’s always ice. It’s a question of how much. In recent times the arctic has been essentially impassable, even with ice breakers. Now it’s more passable, but you still want to have ice breakers handy when some Exxon Valdez gets frozen in. For the Russians the arctic is what the Spratley’s are to China: an opportunity for a strategic land grab.

    But my main point is that foreign policy is too often simplified down to the military, and there are a lot of things the military isn’t good at. And, to some extent, that’s understandable — do we care what happens in Africa if Africa isn’t shooting at us? Well, no, not exactly, but we’re letting conditions fester where people who would be happy to shoot at us are gaining support.

    I could not agree more. If we can avoid military responses we should. If we decide to use the military it should be decisive. And we should be looking further ahead than just ‘who is shooting at us today?’ People think climate change means we’ll be uncomfortably warm and we’ll lose the North Carolina barrier islands. What it really means, in all likelihood, is famine, pestilence, war and massive migrations, which in turn means more war. Our biggest FP threats are a rising China and a deteriorating climate.

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  11. Gustopher says:

    Some questions that I have, and that I don’t see the media answering right now…

    – What was the contractor who was killed doing? Was he a mercenary or food prep? Had he committed war crimes?

    – There have been a bunch of attacks on Iraqi military bases recently by Shia (“Iranian backed”) militias. What is the Iraqi government doing about it?

    – Was the Iraqi government consulted, and did they give approval for the airstrikes? This relationship is very murky, and could range from us acting unilaterally, to the Iraqi government wanting plausible deniability.

    – Who ordered the airstrikes? We’re these legal orders? If this is based on AUMF, what is the al Qaeda connection?

    – What did they expect would happen? Backlash seems inevitable. Were embassy defenses improved?

    – Was this contractor worth it?

    – Will we be responding with air strikes?

    Ultimately, this is the Iraqis’ country and we are either guests or occupiers. If we are guests, we need to start acting like guests — working with the Iraqi government. If we are occupiers, maybe we shouldn’t be.

    The smart response here is likely to take the punch, be glad no embassy personnel were killed, claim that there was some confusion over whether the Iraqi government authorized the airstrikes, and work with the Iraqi government in the future. Maybe pay reparations to the families of those killed. And sack someone high enough up that it looks like we are serious.

    Or we could bomb some shit. It will make things worse, but we will feel like we got our vengeance on, and in a few months when there is open warfare, we’ll, who can say what causes Iraqi’s to start a resurrection? Probably the wind.

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  12. Tyrell says:

    There should be apprehension of any suspects that are involved in any way. Then a trial by some sort of tribunal. Iran’s involvement must be investigated and those Iranians responsible also must be held accountable.
    This must not end up like Benghazi, with no trial for those who killed and injured our people, and no payment for damages by those responsible.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Tyrell:

    There should be apprehension of any suspects that are involved in any way

    So, our military members who were involved in the air strikes?

    Wow. I was not going to go there. I do think arrest and prosecution of those who ordered and carried out the mission would show that we are not above the law, but I think it would play badly at home, and we can meet the same objectives through other means.

    Plus, we don’t even know to what extent the air strikes were authorized by the Iraqi government. It would be rude to throw them under the bus if they tacitly agreed by exposing that, and it would be worse to prosecute our airmen if they were following secretly-legal orders. Best to keep our airmen out of the courts if we can.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    Part of being powerful is not letting your enemies dictate your actions. I’m not saying “don’t respond to attacks by Shia militias,” but don’t respond until we have a better response than air strikes that violate the sovereignty of our host nation which just makes us look like occupiers and which generates an absolutely predictable backlash rallying public support for our enemies.

    We are strong enough we shouldn’t have to respond immediately.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    People think climate change means we’ll be uncomfortably warm and we’ll lose the North Carolina barrier islands. What it really means, in all likelihood, is famine, pestilence, war and massive migrations, which in turn means more war. Our biggest FP threats are a rising China and a deteriorating climate.

    The Syrian civil war and refugee crisis was in part caused by crop failure, which may well be because of climate change. Crop failure wasn’t the whole story, but it aggravates existing problems.

    Look at what happened to Europe after the waves of Syrian refugees — a rise in hard right parties, nationalism and racism.

    Now, image that a hundred times larger.

    I don’t think China is a grave threat. Not compared to that. Our interests don’t always align, their human rights record is poor (but, starvation is way down, so that’s an improvement), and their trade practices are poor, but they aren’t a significant threat to us, just to our dominance of the region.

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  16. Navy1981 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Michael Reynolds: @Michael Reynolds:North Korea: losing.
    South China Sea: losing.
    Iran: losing.
    Russian infowar: losing.

    I would put these in the undecided catagory. NOK was never a play for any President. If your people are eating bugs and starving I would not call that a win for their team South China Sea is a challenge. US Navy can no longer cover the territory. Russia Info War yes only because our Press wants us to lose. As a country Russia is failing. China we are decoupling from the logistics chain. Nothing in it for the US. Cheap labor can be found in 100 other countries. Cutting off their technology which they cannot steal will set them back. Google is a problem with AI.

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  17. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Funny thing…

    I was flying over Iraq just the other day (… no, seriously! I was!)

    Two things surprised me:

    1) At night, there were a LOT more lights than I thought there would be… As an American, what we see on TV is that it is a whole lot of desert and nothing… From the air it looked at least as populated and lit as Ohio.

    Here is a picture I tweeted of Baghdad from the air: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EM52NKxXYAAE-SK?format=jpg&name=4096×4096

    2) There were some spots that were blindingly bright… I didn’t have an idea what that was. Now, I have a pretty good idea, and am not surprised that there are protests.

    I’m hoping the super bright lights were oilfields burning off gases… but it looked more like urban areas. 🙁

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  18. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Gustopher: A retaliatory response either is pre-authorized by the President or, if there is no current authorization to strike the target(s) or adversary, the Theater Commander will request the authorization from the President via the Secretary of Defense. Who can approve or disapprove the request.

    We actually DO have Civilian control of the Military…the targets, adversaries, and operating areas are all designated by the President with input from the Chairman and SecDef and validation by a stable of lawyers. The only scenario where local authorization to strike a target or adversary (where no authorization currently exists) is imminent danger/self defense which mean troops under direct attack. No airman would throw his/her career away to strike targets or non designated adversaries in a non-iminent danger retaliatory attack. Hell, the Theater Commander would even get relieved as well as the lead Air General.

    As for the logic, it has always been understood that Iran would give their proxies the go ahead to attack Americans once their usefulness in the ISIS fight was complete. I want not one of our kids to die so Iran can score points against the Great Satan. As for the Iraqis, F$#K them and what they want when it comes to their actions providing security for our forces who are there AT THE REQUEST of the Iraqi Gov’t. These are the same people that allowed 10000k militia men in pickup trucks to carve out a large swath of Iraq without firing so much as a shot…to be used to plan and facilitate terrorist operations in the West. As they ran from the men in rifles and pickup trucks…they turned Western heavy armor over to them in the process. They are NOT good faith actors.

    The dirty secret is the Iraqis cannot provide security for our forces and we need to be there as a disrupting forces for these Jihadis. These governments frankly dont give a damn if these people use their countries as a launching pad to raise money and plan attacks against the evil west. As soon as civilians get gunned down in attacks, citizens expect their govt to do something. It is. This is the best of bad options. Cest la vie

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  19. Mike says:

    I am sure we will do something to make this situation that we created, beginning with W, worse. Cost a lot of money, we don’t have. To waste. Happy New Year.

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  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Mike: It began way before that. The Persians should have been the ally of choice in the Middle East. Instead, we chose to partner with Arabs.
    That ship sailed with the Shah of Iran. Today’s middle East is the culmination of almost 50 years of bad choices.

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  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: MAJOR ICEBREAKERS OF THE WORLD (chart)

    Wars are generally won by he who gets there firstest with the mostest. By the time the ice is gone the Russians will have it all locked up. We aren’t even trying.

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  22. Gustopher says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Someone presented a plan, after having considered a bunch of other plans, and Trump said “I’m a counter puncher, so counter punch” because he is a simpleton.

    We should understand who made the decision of what to present, and what other options were on the table, and what the state department and the experts thought would be a likely response. The Shia militias are also counter punchers.

    And to what extent the Iraqi government was involved — I do not have confidence that we were operating within our agreements with the Iraqis.

    ——

    Shia LaBouef needs to settle down with someone named Sunni.

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