A member of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi military network waves a national flag as he exits a burning room after breaching the outer wall of the US diplomatic mission in the capital Baghdad, on December 31, 2019. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP

Iran’s supreme leader taunted US President Donald Trump on Wednesday, 24 hours after loyalists of an Iraqi paramilitary group breached the grounds of the United States embassy in Baghdad.

Trump had insisted the embassy was secured, after supporters of Iraq’s Iran-allied paramilitary forces – outraged over the killing of 25 fighters in US air strikes – forced their way into the heavily fortified Green Zone and the US embassy grounds.

“The US Embassy in Iraq is, & has been for hours, SAFE!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.

“Thank you to the President & Prime Minister of Iraq for their rapid response upon request,” the US leader said, adding that Iran would be held “fully responsible” for any lives lost as the anti-American demonstrators held their ground outside the embassy walls.

The tensions only abated late Wednesday, after the demonstrators finally agreed to disperse, their point being made.

The Iraqi anti-terrorism force charged with protecting the Green Zone in a statement to the media had denied receiving any request to protect “any entity.” But an Iraqi security source told the Asia Times that the agency had in fact refused to intervene to control the angry demonstration.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday mocked the situation of the US in Iraq and the region.

“[Trump] has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad & we will respond to Iran,” he said, adding: “1st: You can’t do anything. 2nd: If you were logical – which you’re not – you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan… have made nations hate you.”

‘Soleimani is my leader’

The embassy breach began with a funeral for 25 members of the Hezbollah Brigades killed in the US strikes on their base in western Iraq, morphing into an angry demonstration against the American presence in the country.

Loyalists of Iranian-allied paramilitary forces stormed the Green Zone and pitched tents in front of the US embassy, apparently preparing for a protracted sit-in outside the largest diplomatic facility in the country.

Several political leaders and security chiefs close to Iran took part in the protests. Most significant among them was Falih Alfayyadh, the chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the paramilitary force which was given official status during the war against the extremist group ISIS. 

Also in attendance was Alfayyadh’s deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Iran-backed Badr Organization and United Iraqi Alliance parliamentary bloc; and Qais Khazali, the founder and leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq paramilitary group.

The highly trained Green Zone security forces, which protect the presidency, parliament and cabinet, did not prevent the angry demonstration from entering the fortified zone, where diplomatic missions and government agencies are located, according to eyewitness accounts to the Asia Times.

US embassy black armored vehicles were seen leaving with several staff members and contractors as the area came under attack, eyewitnesses inside the Green Zone told Asia Times.

The Hezbollah Brigades, which had come under US attack, told the media that the demonstrators would remain in place until the US embassy in Baghdad was shut down, while denying they had orchestrated any breach of the embassy itself. 

Those who forced their way to the embassy gate left little doubt of their affiliation, holding up the paramilitary group’s flag.

“Closed in the name of the people,” read graffiti sprayed on the embassy wall.

“Soleimani is my leader,” others wrote, in reference to the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the IRGC. 

Black smoke was seen in the sky of Baghdad as demonstrators set car tires on fire along the walls of the compound. A number of embassy walls and doors were burnt while windows were broken by demonstrators throwing rocks. 

Contrary to Trump’s tweet, it appeared the Iraqi authorities were complicit in allowing the protesters to enter the Green Zone and arrive at the US embassy, security reinforcements only joined after several hours had passed.

Leaving embassy

On Wednesday morning, the demonstrators were still staked out outside the embassy walls. However,  demonstrators left the embassy later Wednesday after the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force ordered them to withdraw a day after their dramatic incursion.

Iraq’s caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi called on the angry crowd to leave the embassy, but most spent the night in dozens of tents set up outside the perimeter wall.

On Wednesday morning, crowds of men brandished the Hashed’s colours, torched US flags and hurled rocks towards the compound.

Security personnel inside responded with tear gas, wounding at least 20 people, the Hashed said.

By the afternoon, the Hashed called on its supporters to leave the embassy and regroup outside the Green Zone “out of respect for the state.”

“You delivered your message,” it said in a statement.

AFP’s photographer saw protesters dismantling their tents and leaving the Green Zone.

“We burned them!” they said, streaming back out of checkpoints they had breezed through on Tuesday.

Kataeb Hezbollah, the group targeted in the US raids, initially told AFP it would stay at the embassy, but later said it had decided to abide by the Hashed’s order.

“We scored a huge win: we arrived to the US embassy, which no one had done before,” spokesman Mohammad Mohyeddin told AFP.

“Now, the ball is in parliament’s court,” he added, referring to lawmakers’ efforts to revoke the legal cover for 5,200 US troops to deploy in Iraq.

Outrage at airstrikes

Since Sunday night, US F15 fighter jets bombed several locations for the Hezbollah Brigades which works in cooperation with Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces. The bombings prompted public and official outrage in Iraq.

Twenty-five militants were killed in the bombings including a leader of the brigades, which are close to Iran. Additionally, 51 other militants were wounded, including some with severe injuries.

The three authorities in Iraq – the presidency, the parliament, and the cabinet – immediately condemned the US raids.

Most of the Shiite political parties also issued statements condemning the air strikes and demanded expelling foreign forces, above all the US from Iraq.

Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the armed faction Saraya Al Salam called on Iraq’s political parties to unite to push American forces out of Iraq.

Iraq’s armed factions have also threatened retaliation. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, threatened a “tough response” against the airstrike on the Hezbollah Brigades base in Anbar.

The recently resigned Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdel-Mahdi, acknowledged being notified by the US administration of the strikes in advance. 

“The US defense secretary [Mark Spencer] notified us that US forces will attack Hezbollah locations and that it will happen within hours,” he said, adding: “We told the US defense secretary that we disapprove of the attack and request deliberation one on one, but he said the decision was already made.” 

As early as Monday night, a number of Iraqi political leaders suggested reconsidering a security treaty with the US-led coalition against Islamic State. The treaty allows the international alliance to use Iraqi air space, establish military bases, and deploy troops.

The Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it will summon the US ambassador to present its objection to attacking Iraqi militants.

Proxy war fears

The targeting of the US embassy has divided public opinion in Iraq, which has been rocked since October by a nationwide anti-government protests, the largest demonstrations seen in over a decade.

Nearly 500 Iraqi protesters have been killed, including by teargas canisters fired to the head, since the demonstrations erupted. More than 20,000 have been wounded, while the country has been locked in a political standstill since the prime minister and his cabinet resigned. 

In the wake of the embassy breach, protesters in Tahrir Square, the center of the Baghdad protests, declared through megaphones that they had nothing to do with the demonstrations in the Green Zone. In contrast, the Fatah Alliance, which represents Iraqi paramilitary groups in parliament, said the storming of the US embassy was a normal reaction to the American strikes. 

Others have warned that infuriating the US administration will end up putting Iraq’s political authorities at the mercy of Iran, and that their country — which has not seen peace in over a decade and a half — will become the theater of a new US-Iran proxy war. 

Iraqi politicians have Whatsapp groups through which they deliberate on politics. These groups have witnessed severe tensions as of late, as seen by the Asia Times.

Politicians representing areas with a majority Sunni Muslim population in the north and west of Iraq believe armed groups close to Iran are dragging Iraq into positions that will lead to major financial and political setbacks and instability. A number of Kurdish politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan agree with the Sunni Arab politicians.

But these political parties and their leaders have not publicly stated their position on the targeting of the US embassy.

The escalation between Iraq’s powerful allies prompted Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiite Muslims, to break his silence on Tuesday.

Sistani condemned the US strikes and called for respecting Iraq’s sovereignty, but added that only the Iraqi authorities should respond with proper action.

“Work to ensure Iraq does not become a space for settling regional and international conflicts and for intervention in its internal affairs,” he told the country’s leaders. 

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