The United States is sending around 750 more troops to the Middle East immediately, following an attack by pro-Iranian demonstrators on the US embassy in Baghdad, the Pentagon said Tuesday. The US Embassy in Iraq, which is technically US territory, is under heavy attack.
More troops from a rapid response unit of the 82nd Airborne Division are prepared to deploy over the next several days, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement.
“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” he said.
“The United States will protect our people and interests anywhere they are found around the world.”
Trump warns Iran
US President Donald Trump blamed Tehran and warned that it would face punishment if Americans are killed.
“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” Trump said on Twitter on late Tuesday.
“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” wrote Trump, adding “Happy New Year!”
Rapid response team
Earlier, the US flew a rapid response team of Marines into Baghdad to reinforce its embassy after the mob stormed the compound, setting fires and chanting “Death to America!”
Angered by US air strikes that killed two dozen fighters, hundreds of protesters spilled through checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone, demanding the ouster of US troops from Iraq and voicing loyalty to a powerful Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Thousands of protesters and militia fighters gathered outside the main gate of the embassy compound to condemn US air strikes on bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq.
The US ambassador and other staff were evacuated from the embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as protests rage outside, two Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials said on Tuesday.
The ambassador and staff left out of security concerns. One official said a few embassy protection staff remained.
Only a small amount of teargas was used and militia forces, using loud speakers, urged the crowd to disperse, a Reuters witness said.
Iraq PM demands protesters leave US embassy
Iraq’s caretaker premier Adil Abdul Mahdi said that crowds that had stormed the US embassy should leave the compound “immediately”.
“We recall that any aggression or harassment of foreign embassies will be firmly prohibited by the security forces,” Abdel Mahdi’s office said several hours after the attack began.
Seven armoured vehicles with about 30 Iraqi soldiers arrived near the embassy hours after the violence erupted, deploying near the embassy walls but not close to the breached area.
There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon and the State Department on the breach of the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The US attack – the largest targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia in recent years – and the calls for retaliation represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the US and Iran playing out in the Middle East.
Tuesday’s attempted embassy storming took place after mourners held funerals for the militia fighters who were killed in a Baghdad neighbourhood, after which they marched onto the heavily fortified Green Zone and kept walking till they reached the sprawling US Embassy there.
US will not tolerate actions by Iran
AP journalists at the scene saw the crowd try to storm the embassy, shouting “down, down USA” and “death to America” and “death to Israel”.
Security guards were seen retreating to the inside of the embassy.
Protesters also were seen hanging yellow flags belonging to the Kataib Hezbollah militia backed by Iran on the walls of the embassy.
Kataib Hezbollah had vowed on Monday to retaliate for the US military strikes. The attack and vows for revenge raised concerns of new attacks that could threaten US interests in the region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strikes send the message that the US will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardise American lives.
The US air strikes outraged both the militia and the Iraqi government which said it will reconsider its relationship with the US-led coalition, the first time it has said it will do so since an agreement was struck to keep some US troops in the country. It called the attack a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.
In a partly televised meeting on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi told Cabinet members that he had tried to stop the US operation “but there was insistence” from American officials.
The US military said “precision defensive strikes” were conducted against five sites of Kataib Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq and Syria.
The group, which is a separate force from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, operates under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Unit. Many of them are supported by Iran.
US senator blames Iran
US Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Iran was responsible for the disorder.
Qais al Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al Haq militia, and many other senior militia leaders were among the protesters.
“Americans are unwanted in Iraq. They are a source of evil and we want them to leave,” Khazali told Reuters. Khazali is one of the most feared and respected Shia militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies.
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.
Militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al Mohandes, and Badr Organisation leader Hadi al Amiri were also at the protest.