Pro-Iran protesters leave US embassy compound in Baghdad

After being hit with tear gas, demonstrators who rallied against deadly US air raids heed calls to retreat.

    The US embassy in Baghdad suspended all public consular operations on Wednesday as the protest raged [Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]
    The US embassy in Baghdad suspended all public consular operations on Wednesday as the protest raged [Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]

    Protesters withdrew from the United States embassy perimeter in Baghdad after the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces or PMF) paramilitary force ordered them to leave, a day after their dramatic demonstration.

    Iraq's military confirmed on Wednesday that the protesters had left.

    On Tuesday, thousands of Iraqi supporters of the largely Iranian-trained group had encircled and vandalised the embassy compound, outraged by US air raids in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 Hashd fighters over the weekend.

    Angered crowds marched unimpeded through the checkpoints of the usually high-security Green Zone to the embassy gates, where they broke through a reception area, chanting "Death to America" and spraying pro-Iran graffiti on the walls.

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    Iraq's caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called on the protesters 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 Hashd's colours, torched US flags and hurled rocks towards the compound.

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

    By the afternoon, the group called on its supporters to leave the embassy and gather outside the Green Zone out of "respect" for the state.

    "You delivered your message," the Hashd said in a statement.

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

    Kataib Hezbollah, the group associated with the Hashd that was targeted in the US raids, initially said it would stay at the embassy.

    But the group's spokesman Mohammad Mohyeddin later backed down, saying they were abiding by the Hashd's order.

    "We scored a huge win: We arrived to the US embassy, which no one had done before," he told AFP.

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    "Now, the ball is in parliament's court," Moyheddin added, referring to legislators' efforts to revoke the legal cover for 5,200 US troops to deploy in Iraq.

    Reporting from Baghdad, Al Jazeera's Simona Foltyn said: "The crowds have now fully withdrawn from the US embassy.

    "Initially, the most defiant groups were reluctant to leave, burning tyres and waving flags, before they too made their way out of the Green Zone and to the other side of the Tigris."

    According to Foltyn, US-trained Iraqi counterterrorism forces have taken over security around the embassy.

    "As the crowds heeded the PMF calls to withdraw, the forces surrounded the embassy," she said. 

    Also on Wednesday, the US embassy in Baghdad said that all public consular operations were suspended.

    "Due to militia attacks at the US Embassy compound, all public consular operations are suspended until further notice. All future appointments are canceled. US citizens are advised to not approach the embassy," it said in a statement.

    New sit-in

    After the protesters left, many marched across bridges connecting the Green Zone to the other side of Baghdad. Hundreds of protesters erected tents for the night, according to witnesses.

    "We withdrew from the US embassy because we received orders to leave the premises," said 24-year-old Mohamed.

    "But we've set up camp on the banks of the Tigris [River] opposite the US embassy and the Green Zone so that we can continue our sit-in for at least the three days of mourning."

    Another protester, who also left the Green Zone and joined the crowds on the opposite side of the river, said he will continue to protest until further notice.

    "We will continue an open-ended protest here until we receive orders from our leaders to do otherwise," 33-year-old Ammar, who described himself as a PMF member, told Al Jazeera.

    "The Hashd is a legitimate part of the Iraqi state and we have to show the US that we won't back down," he said. 

    'You can't do a thing'

    Tuesday's embassy attack was the latest episode in spiralling tensions between the US and Iran since Washington abandoned a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.

    Many of those tensions have played out in Iraq, which has close ties with both governments.

    US forces have faced a spate of rocket attacks in recent months, blaming them on pro-Iran PMF factions.

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    Last week, one of those attacks killed a US contractor, prompting the retaliatory US air raids that killed 25 fighters from Kataib Hezbollah.

    US President Donald Trump and other US officials have blamed Iran for attacks on US forces and the embassy.

    "They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat," Trump wrote on Twitter.

    Iran's supreme leader on Wednesday condemned the US attacks in Iraq and warned that Tehran was ready to hit back.

    "First of all, you can't do a damn thing! This has nothing to do with Iran," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech on state television.

    "If the Islamic Republic decides to oppose or fight against a country, it will do this explicitly," he said.

    Tehran's foreign ministry said it had summoned an official from the Swiss embassy, which represents US interests in Iran, over US "warmongering" in Iraq.

    'Our hands are tied'

    By Wednesday, Iraqi forces had reimposed normal security measures around the perimeter of the Green Zone, usually inaccessible without a badge.

    US officials were alarmed that protesters crossed checkpoints so easily on Tuesday.

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    An Iraqi special forces fighter assigned to guard the Green Zone told AFP his units had no orders to intervene.

    "If I had had orders to act, I could have fired and stopped the storming of the embassy," he said.

    "But after what happened, our hands are tied. We can't prevent the situation from deteriorating."

    US officials have pressured Iraqi authorities to step up security and sent a rapid response team of marines overnight to help guard the compound.

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

    No US personnel were injured in the attack and US officials said they had no plans to evacuate.

    US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller was said to be on his way back to Baghdad from holiday, but had yet to arrive on Wednesday afternoon.

    The attack highlighted new strains in the US-Iraqi relationship.

    The US led the 2003 invasion against the then-leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and it has worked closely with Iraqi officials since, but its influence has waned compared with Tehran's growing clout.

    Tuesday's dramatic scenes at the embassy evoked memories of both the 1979-1981 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran and the deadly 2012 attack on the US consulate in Libya's second city Benghazi.

    Abdallah al-Salam contributed to this report from Baghdad.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies