Sunday 26 January 2020

Ambassador flees as angry Iraqis storm US embassy

Iraqi protesters set a sentry box ablaze in front of the US embassy in Baghdad amid fury over US air strikes. Photo: Getty Images
Iraqi protesters set a sentry box ablaze in front of the US embassy in Baghdad amid fury over US air strikes. Photo: Getty Images

Ahmed Rasheed

The US ambassador to Iraq and other staff were evacuated from their embassy in Baghdad for their safety yesterday, Iraqi officials said, as thousands of protesters and militia fighters thronged the gates in fury at US air strikes in Iraq.

On Sunday, US planes had attacked bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia, a move that risks drawing Iraq further into a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran.

The attack on the Kataib Hezbollah militia was in response to the killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base.

The two Iraqi foreign ministry officials did not say when the US ambassador or other staff had left but added that a few embassy protection staff remained.

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Outside the embassy, protesters threw stones at the gate while others chanted, "No, no, America! ... No, no, Trump!" Iraqi special forces were deployed around the main gate to prevent them entering the embassy.

US-trained Iraqi counter-terrorism forces were later dispatched to reinforce these units.

A few hours into the protest, tear gas was fired in an attempt to disperse the crowd and some of the militias encouraged protesters through loudspeakers to leave.

"We have delivered our message, please leave the area to avoid bloodshed," said one announcement.

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

But yesterday, it was these militias that were spraying "Closed in the name of the people" on the gates of the US embassy and smashing the surveillance cameras around the building with bricks and stones. Some set up tents in preparation for a sit-in.

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," Mr Khazali said.

The Iraqi government condemned the US attacks as a violation of the country's sovereignty and said it would review its relationship with the US. American officials said the Iraqis had failed to protect American troops and diplomats, and characterised the strikes as "defensive" in nature.

"We warned the Iraqi government, many times, to carry out their responsibility to protect us as their invited guests," said a senior State Department official.

The strikes against Kataib Hezbollah, in which 25 militia members were killed and more than 50 injured, threaten to drag Iraq further into a proxy conflict between the US and Iran.

But the outrage from Iraqis across the political spectrum, as well as threats of retaliation, also underlined the US's growing isolation in Iraq and called into question the continued viability of about 5,000 US troops in the country.

US officials said the strikes were intended to deter rocket attacks such as the one targeting a military base in Kirkuk last Friday that killed an American defence contractor and injured four US troops, the first US casualties in an intensifying series of assaults.

"This was a defensive action designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq, and it was aimed also at deterring Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News. "This was an Iranian-backed rogue militia acting to deny the Iraqi people their basic sovereignty."

The Iranian foreign ministry condemned the actions as "a clear example of terrorism", and a top militia leader vowed retaliation against US forces in Iraq.

The air strikes raised the stakes in the region-wide confrontation between Tehran and Washington that began after the Trump administration withdrew from a 2015 nuclear agreement and launched its "maximum pressure" campaign of economic sanctions against Iran. The sanctions have devastated Iran's economy and led the government to start pulling back from its commitments under the deal.

The US has responded by adding more sanctions, but the lack of a US military response apparently has given the rulers in Tehran more confidence to launch attacks targeting the US and its allies - 11 in the past two months alone.

Two weeks ago, Mr Pompeo warned Iran of a "decisive US response" if the regime or its militias harmed American troops or allies in the region. (© Washington Post)

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