BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — Iraqi supporters of Iran attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, breaching its outer wall and chanting "Death to America!" in anger over weekend air strikes that killed two dozen fighters.
It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the U.S. Embassy, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone.
A stream of men in military fatigues, and some women, marched through those checkpoints to the embassy walls with no apparent reaction from Iraqi security forces.
The demonstrators waved flags in support of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a mostly Shiite network of Iraqi armed groups that has received training and weapons from powerful neighbor Iran.
They threw rocks and wrenched security cameras off the walls, ignoring calls over megaphones to leave the embassy compound.
In response, U.S. Marine guards fired an initial volley of bullets, then switched to tear gas and flash bangs to disperse the crowd.
The Hashed said at least 20 people were wounded.
Caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said that the crowds that stormed the 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.
The Iraqi government had announced three days of mourning for the 25 fighters killed in the U.S. airstrikes that killed at least 25 fighters from a hard-line Hashed faction known as Kataeb Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades) on Sunday.
Those strikes were in response to a 36-rocket attack last week that killed one U.S. military contractor at an Iraqi base, the latest in a string of attacks on areas where U.S. troops are deployed.
Responsibility for the attacks has not been claimed, but U.S. security assessments have largely blamed them on Kataeb Hezbollah.
The United States has around 5,200 troops deployed across Iraq to train security forces and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State jihadist group.
After the airstrikes, Kataeb Hezbollah and other pro-Iran factions in the Hashed demanded the "withdrawal of the American enemy."
Protesters echoed those calls on Tuesday, carrying posters: "Parliament should oust U.S. troops, or else we will."
Others carried banners with President Donald Trump's face crossed out.
They scrawled "No to America!" and "Soleimani is my commander" on the embassy walls, referring to Iran's pointman for Iraq, Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Qasem Soleimani.
Many set up tents to begin an indefinite sit-in.
U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller has been outside Iraq for two weeks on holiday, a diplomatic source told AFP.
The source denied that other staff had been evacuated.
Among those at the protests were Iraq's National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayyadh — who is also the head of the Hashed — and other top Hashed officials.
Iraq has long feared being caught in the middle of escalating tensions between its two main allies, the United States and Iran, after Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran last year.
Since the weekend airstrikes, ties have been increasingly strained.
Iraq's government, acting in a caretaker capacity after Abdel Mahdi resigned in the face of street protests, threatened to summon the U.S. ambassador.
"American forces acted on their political priorities, not those of Iraqis," the government said.
Dozens of lawmakers called on the government to review an agreement allowing the deployment of U.S. soldiers in the country, saying the airstrikes amount to a violation of sovereignty that renders the pact obsolete.
The United States, meanwhile, accused Iraq of failing to "protect" U.S. interests in the country.
U.S. defense officials have told AFP that pro-Iran factions pose a greater threat than ISIS because of the repeated rocket attacks.
Abdel Mahdi said he had been forewarned by Defense Secretary Mark Esper that the United States would carry out the airstrikes.
"He told me the United States would strike the Hezbollah Brigades and I told him it would be a very dangerous act that could lead to an escalation," Abdel Mahdi said.
The premier tendered his resignation in November after two months of anti-government rallies.
"This may well be the low point of U.S. policy in Iraq," said Iraq expert Fanar Haddad, of Singapore University's Middle East Institute.
"That the national security adviser, MPs, a former minister and head of one of the most powerful parliamentary blocs are involved speaks volumes about the failure of U.S. policy and the nature of the Iraqi state they helped create," Haddad said.
© Agence France-Presse
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