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Pro-Iran Protesters Lift Siege of US Embassy in Baghdad
Iraqi security forces are deployed in front of the US Embassy in the capital Baghdad, after an order from the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force to supporters to leave the compound on January 1, 2020. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Pro-Iran Protesters Lift Siege of US Embassy in Baghdad

Trump threatens Tehran, holds it responsible for attempt to storm legation

Pro-Iran protesters ended their blockade of the beleaguered US Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Wednesday, a day after thousands of supporters of the Popular Mobilization Forces breached the outer wall and destroyed a reception area.

On Tuesday, angered by US airstrikes on the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hizbullah Shi’ite armed group (one of some 40 militias in the state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella organization), the crowd tried to take over the embassy, hurled rocks, burned US flags and chanted, “Death to America.”

US security personnel inside responded with tear gas, wounding several rioters.

The US strikes on Kata’ib Hizbullah bases in Iraq and Syria on Sunday, carried out in retaliation for attacks on American forces that killed a US contractor and wounded several Iraqi and US soldiers, killed 25 Kata’ib Hizbullah fighters.

US forces across Iraq have faced a flurry of rocket attacks in recent months that American officials blame on pro-Iran factions within the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the American Studies Department at Tehran University, disputes Washington’s narrative. He told The Media Line that the US military had targeted innocent fighters.

“The people who were bombed and murdered by the Americans were on the border with Syria; in fact, many were inside Syria, with the permission of the Syrian government fighting ISIS,” he said.

Marandi said the US actions were hindering the fight against the so-called Islamic State organization.

“The Americans were trying to try to hurt the fight against ISIS because the Americans do not want to see the economic relationship between Iraq and Syria develop. They want to strangle Syria and also those forces in Iraq that were created with the help of Iran to fight ISIS,” Marandi said.

Jason Brodsky, the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, told The Media Line that the attack on the embassy had Tehran’s fingerprints all over it.

“Iraq’s Shi’ite militias are a part of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance.’ Tehran provides them with manpower, money and materiel. The militias are under the leadership of figures like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who says he is a soldier of the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, [Maj. Gen.] Qasem Soleimani,” Brodsky said.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is the commander of Kata’ib Hizbullah and the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces. Before that, he worked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said around 750 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were prepared to deploy to the region in the coming days.

There are currently about 5,200 US military personal in Iraq. Officials say that as many as 4,000 reinforcements could be sent to the region within days if needed.

Phillip Smyth, a 2018-2019 Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line that whether the US dispatched additional forces depended on what Tehran did next.

“I believe that more troops would be deployed to Iraq only if the Iranians decided to truly up the ante and kill or directly target more Americans,” he said.

Smyth added that President Donald Trump had repeatedly promised to bring US troops back home, and this would be a major factor in his decision on whether to send reinforcements. “There is a general attitude and view in the US that America’s time sending thousands of troops to the Middle East has ended, and this will likely influence decisions in the future,” he said.

On Wednesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei strongly condemned what he called US “malice.”

Meanwhile, Trump placed the blame for the embassy compound attack directly on the Islamic Republic, saying Iran would be held responsible.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump wrote on Twitter, adding “Happy New Year!”

Marandi said the US accusation was unfounded. “I don’t think it’s fair. The Americans regularly make accusations against Iran, but they provide no evidence,” he said.

The strained relations between Tehran and Washington are playing out in Iraq. Brodsky said this was problematic for Baghdad, which considers both the US and Iran allies.

“Iraq for years has been caught between an American rock and an Iranian hard place. America’s leverage over the government comes with its security assistance and presence on the ground. I don’t see that posture changing in the near term,” Brodsky said.

Marandi, however, put the blame squarely on Trump’s approach in the region.

“The US policy in Iraq is one of arrogance, and the US government is a rogue regime. The very fact that they do whatever they want, and they do not recognize Iraqi sovereignty, turns them into the enemy of the Iraqi people. The Americans are their own worst enemies,” he said.

“They have united the Iraqis against them once again, through their stupidity and their arrogance, and this has opened a new chapter. Iran sees Iraq as its neighbor. There are no Iranian troops in Iraq; there are American troops in Iraq. Iranians don’t fly helicopters with impunity over Bagdad, and the Iranian Embassy is just an ordinary embassy; it’s not like the US Embassy which is the size of Vatican City,” Marandi said.

Brodsky doesn’t think the escalation in rhetoric will lead to a military confrontation between the US and Iran.

“While there is always the risk of escalation and miscalculation, there has been recent messaging from President Trump and Iran’s supreme leader that they don’t want war,” he said.

“Tehran is testing the US in the region in order to build leverage amidst the [US] ‘maximum pressure’ [on Iran] campaign. But with each provocation, Iran risks alienating the Europeans, who are still trying to save the nuclear deal” that the US exited in 2018.

The anti-American demonstrations come after months of protests in Iraq against the Iran-backed militias, which support the government.

Smyth said shifting the Iraqi public’s focus away from Iran’s power in the country was exactly what Tehran needed now.

“The Iranians would love further conflict [involving the US]. It would distract Iraqis from their legitimate anti-government and in some cases anti-Iran protests,” he said.

The US led the 2003 invasion that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein and has worked closely with Iraqi officials since then, but its influence has waned in the face of Tehran’s growing clout in Baghdad.

The dramatic scenes at the embassy on Tuesday sparked comparisons with both the 1979 hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran and the deadly 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Libya’s second city, Benghazi.

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