Protesters demonstrate at U.S. embassy in Iraq in new test for Trump

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FILE PHOTO: Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili

December 31, 2019

By Ahmed Rasheed and Idrees Ali

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Protesters angry about U.S. air strikes on Iraq hurled stones and torched a security post at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, setting off a confrontation with guards and posing a new challenge for U.S. President Donald Trump.

The protests, led by Iranian-backed militias, prompted the United States to deploy additional U.S. Marines to protect embassy personnel who were huddled inside the facility.

Embassy guards used stun grenades and tear gas to repel protesters, who stormed and burned the security post at the entrance but did not breach the main compound.

The State Department said diplomatic personnel inside were safe and there were no plans to evacuate them.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said troops from the 82 Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina could be sent to the region in the coming hours if needed. They could number in the hundreds, though less than a thousand, officials said.

The unprecedented attack on an American diplomatic mission in Iraq marked a sharp escalation of the proxy conflict between the United States and Iran – both influential players in the country – and plunged U.S. relations with Iraq to their worst level in years.

The United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and ousted Saddam Hussein. But political stability has been elusive.

Trump, on a two-week working vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, spoke by phone to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq. “President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the White House said.

Trump – suddenly at risk of entering his 2020 re-election year with a new foreign policy headache to sort out – accused Iran of orchestrating the violence and said Tehran would be held responsible.

The protests followed U.S. air strikes on Sunday on bases operated by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah inside Iraq, which killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55. The strikes were retaliation for the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, which Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet. “Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible.”

Iran, under severe economic duress from punishing U.S. sanctions put in place by Trump, denied responsibility.

“America has the surprising audacity of attributing to Iran the protests of the Iraqi people against (Washington’s) savage killing of at least 25 Iraqis,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Democrats upset that Trump ditched the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2015 were quick to pounce on the incident as a failure of Trump’s Iran policy.

“The predictable result of the Trump administration’s reckless bluster, escalation and miscalculation in the Middle East is that we are now hurtling closer to an unauthorized war with Iran that the American people do not support,” said U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

STONES AND TEAR GAS

The protesters, joined briefly by Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia leaders, threw stones at the embassy gate while others chanted, “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces prevented protesters entering, later reinforced by U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces.

The embassy has been hit by sporadic but non-lethal rocket fire in recent months, and was regularly shelled following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but has not been physically attacked by demonstrators in this way before.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of the militias which have been officially integrated into Iraq’s armed forces, said 62 militiamen and civilians were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiamen and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away.

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 Abdul Mahdi’s government.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Palm Beach and Daphne Psaledakis, Doina Chiacu and Diane Bartz in Washington; writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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