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Protesters attack US embassy in Iraq after airstrikes

Posted at 7:09 AM, Dec 31, 2019

Protesters attacked 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.

Two sources at the demonstration witnessed the attempt to break into the premises adding that security personnel fired tear gas to repel the attack. Video footage shows demonstrators smashing windows, burning items outside and throwing rocks over the walls.

The embassy, in Baghdad's green zone, has been put under lockdown, but protesters have not been able to breach the compound, an embassy spokesperson told CNN.

US ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller has been on vacation for more than a week, the spokesperson added.

It is not clear how many people are inside the embassy, but it is the US' largest diplomatic mission in the world, with around 16,000 staff. The compound covers around 100 acres, around the same size as the Vatican City.

The pro-Iranian demonstrators were mostly from Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a coalition of predominantly Shiite militias. Three leaders of powerful militia groups were also seen at the protest, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who heads the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah, targeted by the American strikes on Sunday.

The strikes and protests come at a time of high tensions between the US and Iran, and have stoked fears of a new proxy war in the Middle East .

The US carried out five airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on facilities controlled by Kataib Hezbollah, killing at least 25 people killed and wounding 51, in the first significant US military response to Kataib Hezbollah's weeks of deadly rocket attacks on US-Iraqi targets.

US officials said the strikes were carried out with F-15 Strike Eagle fighter planes and targeted weapons storage facilities and command and control locations used by Kataib Hezbollah. The Pentagon said the locations had been used "to plan and execute attacks" on joint US-Iraq forces.

Trump blames Iran

US President Donald Trump confirmed Tuesday that the airstrikes were a response to a recent attack that killed a US contractor. He blamed Iran both for the contractor's death and Tuesday's attack on the embassy.

"Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. 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!" Trump tweeted.

Washington has tightened the economic squeeze on Tehran this year through its "maximum pressure" campaign, while Iran has responded with what it calls for "maximum resistance," including reducing its compliance to the international nuclear deal . The Trump administration pulled the US out of that deal in May 2018, sparking a campaign of provocation between the two nations.

The airstrikes and embassy attack have also created new tensions between allies Washington and Baghdad, with Iraqi police and soldiers among the killed and wounded. They come at a time of unrest as mass protests across Iraq challenge the nation's precarious government.

Baghdad warned Monday that its relations with the US were at risk following the strikes. Questions have also been raised as to whether Iraqi forces allowed the protesters to reach the US Embassy, a highly fortified building in a ares that is usually restricted.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih on Tuesday, the State Department said in a statement.

"The Secretary made clear the United States will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq. Both Abdul-Mahdi and Salih assured the Secretary that they took seriously their responsibility for and would guarantee the safety and security of US personnel and property," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

Abdul-Mahdi earlier called on protestors to leave the area around the embassy, warning them against acts of aggression.

"We ask everyone to immediately leave these places, and we recall that any aggression or harassment of foreign embassies and representations are an act that will be strictly prohibited by the security forces and will be punished by law with the most severe penalties," Abdul Mahdi said in a statement.

But he also described those killed in the US airstrikes as "martyrs" and supported a funeral for them in the capital's streets.