Iraqi stone-throwing militias leave US embassy after protests


BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups who stormed the US embassy perimeter and threw stones in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington sent in additional troops and threatened with reprisals against Tehran.

Protesters, angry at US airstrikes against the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group in which at least 25 people were killed, threw stones at the building as US forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.

By mid-afternoon, most appeared to have heeded a call to withdraw from the Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP) coordination group made up mostly of Shiite militias, which said the protesters’ message had been heard.

The young men used palm branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound. Others packed up supplies and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.

The Iraqi military said all protesters had left by the evening.

The protests marked a new turning point in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran unfolding in the Middle East.

US President Donald Trump, who faces a 2020 re-election campaign, accused Iran of orchestrating the violence. He threatened on Tuesday to retaliate against Iran but later said he did not want a war.

Iran, under severe economic duress to punish US sanctions put in place by Trump, has denied responsibility.

The unrest followed US airstrikes on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a US contractor in northern Iraq last week.

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On Tuesday, the crowd chanted: “Death to America!”, Lit fires and smashed surveillance cameras. They pierced an outer perimeter of the embassy but did not enter the main compound.

LARGEST EMBASSY IN THE UNITED STATES

The huge embassy, ​​built along the banks of the Tigris in the walled “green zone” of central Baghdad during the US occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is the largest US diplomatic mission in the world.

Washington has said its diplomats are safe and is sending hundreds of additional troops to the region.

The State Department said Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has decided to postpone his upcoming trip to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Cyprus to stay in Washington and monitor the situation in Iraq. [L1N29606E]

Pompeo held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, the State Department said.

Pompeo said on Twitter that Abdul Mahdi had agreed that Iraq “will continue to take responsibility for keeping US personnel safe and move Iran-backed attackers away from @USEmbBaghdad.”

Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he thanked the emir in the appeal “for Qatari solidarity in the face of Iran’s malicious regional influence”, including the attack on the embassy in Baghdad.

The embassy said all public consular operations were suspended and all future appointments canceled.

The anti-US action came after months of protests in Iraq against the government and the Iranian-backed militias that back it. Many Iraqis complain that their country has become a battleground for a proxy war of influence between Washington and Tehran, and that their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.

The Iraqi government has long faced friction in its close relations with the two enemies. Trump spoke with Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday and called on Iraq to protect the embassy.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the US attacks on Wednesday. Iran has summoned a Swiss envoy, who represents US interests in Tehran, to complain about what it has called “hawkish” statements from Washington.

US officials said an additional 750 troops would initially be based in Kuwait and up to 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in the coming days.

Over 5,000 US troops are stationed in Iraq to support local forces. The airstrikes galvanized calls inside Iraq to expel them.

Many in the crowd outside the embassy said ending Washington’s presence in Iraq was their primary goal.

‘REPAIR OF THE DEVIL’

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iranian-backed militias and American forces found themselves on the same side in the 2014-2017 Iraqi war against Islamic State fighters. , the two powers helping the government to reconquer the territory of the militants who had invaded a third of it. from Iraq.

Since then, US troops have yet to leave, while Iranian-backed militias have been integrated into the security forces.

Abdul Mahdi, who has announced his intention to withdraw in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people have been killed, is supported by Iran and its allies.

The militia may have decided to withdraw from the embassy to avoid making him appear weak or to avoid clashes with government forces.

Overnight, protesters pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls, then brought food, cooking equipment and mattresses in the morning, indicating that they planned to stay before the embassy. ‘withdrawal call.

“Our sit-in is eternal, until this devil’s lair is closed forever, but don’t give anyone an excuse to make your protest violent.” Don’t run up against security, ”a protest leader told crowds from a stage set up at the embassy before departure.

Report by Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by David Shepardson and Chris Sanders in Washington; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney


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