U.S. security forces fired tear gas to disperse Iraqi protesters on Wednesday who had gathered outside the American embassy compound in Baghdad for a second day.
Dozens of pro-Iranian protesters had camped outside the gates of the embassy overnight, after thousands stormed the compound with some making it as far as the main reception area before being repelled and failing to gain access to the main building on Tuesday. The embassy sits on a vast 100-acre site along the Tigris river, making it the biggest U.S. embassy.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Tuesday that the U.S. is sending about 750 soldiers to the Middle East in the wake of the embassy’s storming. More personnel are on standby to deploy if they’re needed, he added.
On Wednesday around 250 to 300 protesters gathered outside the compound walls where Iraqi security forces had also assembled to protect the integrity of the embassy, a senior Iraqi security official told NBC News on the condition of anonymity.
Video circulated on social media that appeared to show protesters scaling a compound building and agencies published video of what appeared to be demonstrators throwing stones at embassy buildings. It was unclear if those protesting were militiamen, their supporters or both.
The protesters were demonstrating deadly U.S. airstrikes Sunday on weapons depots in Iraq and Syria that the United States said were linked to an Iran-backed Shiite militia group, Kataeb Hezbollah. At least 25 fighters were killed in the strikes.
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The United States blames the militia for attacks on the bases of the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the Islamic State in recent months.
Kataeb Hezbollah, also known as the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq, is separate from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and operates under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
”The American troops in Iraq are supposed to either train Iraqi forces or to combat terrorism. But the killing of members of the Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Forces] this is something unacceptable,” the director of the doctrinal guidance for the forces, Mohamed Al-Haydari, told Reuters.
“So, for this reason, we are coming here, until the U.S. troops leave Iraq,” he added.
Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said the Trump administration’s decision to strike the militia in order to send a message to Iran was “monstrously miscalculated.”
“It provided Iran with a breathing space in Iraq after months of mass protests criticizing Iranian interference in the country’s internal affairs,” he said. “It united most political forces in Iraq against the U.S.”
Iraq has seen massive anti-government protests rage across the country since October, fueled by anger at widespread corruption, economic mismanagement as well as Iran’s heavy influence over the country’s internal affairs. The mass uprisings prompted the resignation in November of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is currently serving as a caretaker prime minister.
Gerges said in 2020 there was “a real danger that the shadow war between the U.S. and Iran might escalate into a direct confrontation.” In Iraq, Iran has a strategic advantage of the U.S. having co-opted allies and armed militias in the country, he added. “The U.S. has a weaker hand.”
Esper said President Donald Trump had ordered the deployment of U.S. troops on Tuesday and said it was an “appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad.”
Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at the London think tank Chatham House, told NBC News that there was currently no back channel between Tehran and Washington, describing it as “huge problem.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that if Iran wanted to fight a country it would do it “straight and clearly.”
“The people of this region hate the U.S., see what they have done in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq,” he added.
Associated Press, Ali Arouzi and Alexander Smith contributed.