President Donald Trump is sending additional military support to the U.S. embassy in Iraq after dozens of Iraqi Shiite militiamen and their supporters broke into the compound on Tuesday, smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area in one of the worst attacks on the embassy in recent memory.
American guards fired tear gas, and palls of smoke rose over the embassy grounds.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw flames rising from inside the compound and at least three U.S. soldiers on the roof of the main embassy building. A man on a loudspeaker urged the mob not to enter the compound, saying: “The message was delivered.”
There were no reports of casualties. The State Department said all American personnel were safe, and there were no plans to evacuate the embassy.
The breach followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.
President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the embassy breach and called on Iraq to protect the diplomatic mission.
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” he tweeted from his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
By early evening, the protesters had retreated from the embassy compound but set up several tents outside where they said they intended to stage a sit-in. Dozens of yellow flags belonging to Iran-backed Shiite militias fluttered atop the reception area and were plastered along the embassy’s concrete wall along with anti-U.S. graffiti. American Apache helicopters flew overhead and dropped flares over the area.
Trump, who is spending the holiday week at his Florida home, is in “close touch” and receiving regular updates from his national security team, said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. She echoed the sentiment contained in Trump’s tweet earlier Tuesday.
A U.S. defense official told Fox News 100 Marines are being sent to the embassy to bolster security. A U.S. Apache helicopter gunship also flew over the embassy and dropped flares in a "show of force," attempting to disperse the crowd. Defense Secretary Mark Esper later confirmed additional forces are being sent.
“As the president said, Iran is orchestrating this attack, and they will be held fully responsible,” Grisham said in an emailed statement. “It will be the president’s choice how and when we respond to their escalation.”
The embassy attack followed deadly U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said it was in retaliation for last week's killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that it had blamed on the militia.
Dozens of protesters marched inside the compound after smashing the gate used by cars to enter the embassy. The protesters, many in militia uniform, stopped in a corridor after about 16 feet, and were only about 200 meters away from the main building. Half a dozen U.S. soldiers were seen on the roof of the main building, their guns were pointed at the protesters.
Smoke from the tear gas rose in the area, and at least three of the protesters appeared to have difficulties breathing. It wasn't immediately known whether the embassy staff had remained inside the main building.
The protesters hanged a poster on the wall: “America is an aggressor.”
Shouting “Down, Down USA,” the crowd tried to push inside the embassy grounds, hurling water and stones over its walls. They raised yellow militia flags and taunted the embassy's security staff who remained behind the glass windows in the gates' reception area. They sprayed graffiti on the wall and windows in red in support of the Kataeb Hezbollah militia: “Closed in the name of the resistance.”
Hundreds of angry protesters, some in militia uniforms, set up tents outside the embassy. As tempers rose, the mob set fire to three trailers used by security guards along the embassy wall.
No one was immediately reported hurt in the rampage and security staff had withdrawn to inside the embassy earlier, soon after protesters gathered outside.
The U.S. attack — the largest targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia in recent years — and the subsequent calls by the militia for retaliation, represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran playing out in the Middle East.
Tuesday's attempted embassy storming took place after mourners and supporters held funerals for the militia fighters killed in a Baghdad neighborhood, after which they marched on to the heavily fortified Green Zone and kept walking till they reached the sprawling U.S. Embassy there.
AP journalists then saw the crowd as they tried to scale the walls of the embassy, in what appeared to be an attempt to storm it, shouting “Down, down USA!” and “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday's strikes send the message that the U.S. will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardize American lives.
The Iranian-backed Iraqi militia had vowed Monday to retaliate for the U.S. military strikes. The attack and vows for revenge raised concerns of new attacks that could threaten American interests in the region.
The U.S. attack also outraged both the militias and the Iraqi government, which said it will reconsider its relationship with the U.S.-led coalition — the first time it has said it will do so since an agreement was struck to keep some U.S. troops in the country. It called the attack a “flagrant violation" of its sovereignty.
In a partly televised meeting Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told Cabinet members that he had tried to stop the U.S. operation “but there was insistence" from American officials.
The U.S. military said "precision defensive strikes" were conducted against five sites of Kataeb 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 Mobilization Forces. Many of them are supported by Iran.