A mob of protesters stormed the United States embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday morning, breaking past gates into a main reception area and setting fires there, according to a report by the Qatar-based news agency Al-Jazeera. Chanting “Down, Down USA!” the crowd attacked the embassy after U.S. airstrikes against the Iran-linked Kataib Hezbollah militia killed 24 and wounded 50 on Sunday.
In a Twitter post responding to the embassy protests, Donald Trump accused Iran of “orchestrating” the attack. The Sunday airstrikes came in retaliation for the death of an American contractor in what the U.S. says was a rocket attack by Kataib Hezbollah.
Embassy staff were reported to be “sitting tight behind the walls,” according to a report via Twitter by Sky News correspondent Deborah Haynes. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matthew H. Tueller, was not in the embassy and has been out of Iraq since Christmas, according to Haynes’ report.
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, called on the protesters to leave the embassy, but Abdul Mahdi is seen to have little authority after he resigned on December 1 following anti-government protests in Iraq. The 77-year-old, who has held the position for about one year, has remained a “caretaker” prime minister until a new one can be selected, though that process has been underway for months.
“Any aggression or harassment of foreign embassies will be firmly prohibited by the security forces,” Abdul Mahdi said in a statement, demanding that protesters leave the embassy area “immediately,” as quoted by Al-Jazeera.
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But for reasons that are not yet clear, Iraqi security forces appear to have stepped aside and allowed the protesters to scale embassy walls, smash windows, and set fires outside the embassy grounds, according to a CNN report.
The angry mob being able to penetrate the “Green Zone” — a heavily guarded sector of Baghdad that houses the country’s government as well as foreign embassies — and reach the U.S. embassy itself “suggests that Iraqi security forces did not stop the demonstrators advancing on the compound,” CNN International correspondent Arwa Damon reported, as quoted in the CNN report Tuesday morning.
Protesters attempted to storm the US embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, scaling the walls and forcing the gates of the compound, as hundreds demonstrated against American airstrikes on an Iran-backed militia group in Iraq. https://t.co/XjwbNXcjPU pic.twitter.com/orzcySQkPX
— CNN International (@cnni) December 31, 2019
Despite the fact that Iraqi government troops appear to be backing off the protesters, Trump at about 7 a.m. EST on Tuesday posted to his Twitter account, declaring, “we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”
The Jordan-based, Arabic-language newspaper, however, reported a “heavy deployment of special forces in central Baghdad,” in a post to its own Twitter account, about an hour after Trump’s tweet.
The protesters are reportedly affiliated with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of about 50 paramilitary groups that was formed in 2014 during the war against the Islamic State in Iraq. In the aftermath of the terror group’s retreat, and a claim of “victory” by Trump, the PMF has rapidly gained power as Iraq’s government remains weakened.