Mili­tias end siege of US Em­bassy

Iraq at­tack raises ten­sions amid fears of fur­ther vi­o­lence

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Qas­sim Ab­dul-Zahra and Joseph Krauss

BAGH­DAD — Ira­ni­an­backed mili­ti­a­men with­drew from the U.S. Em­bassy com­pound in Bagh­dad on Wed­nes­day af­ter two days of clashes with Amer­i­can se­cu­rity forces, but U.S.-Iran ten­sions re­main high and could spill over into fur­ther vi­o­lence.

The with­drawal fol­lowed calls from the gov­ern­ment and se­nior mili­tia lead­ers. It ended a two-day cri­sis marked by the breach of the largest and one of the most heav­ily for­ti­fied U.S. diplo­matic mis­sions in the world.

The at­tack and its vo­latile af­ter­math prompted the Pen­tagon to send hun­dreds of ad­di­tional troops to the Mid­dle East and U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo to de­lay a European and

Cen­tral Asian trip.

In an or­ches­trated as­sault, hun­dreds of mili­ti­a­men and their sup­port­ers broke into the em­bassy com­pound, de­stroy­ing a re­cep­tion area, smash­ing win­dows and spray­ing graf­fiti on walls to protest U.S. airstrikes against an Iran­backed mili­tia over the week­end that killed 25 fight­ers.

The U.S. blamed the mili­tia for a rocket at­tack on an Iraqi mil­i­tary base in the north­ern city of Kirkuk last week that killed a U.S. con­trac­tor. The protesters set up a tent camp overnight and on Wed­nes­day set fire to the re­cep­tion area and hurled stones at U.S. Marines guard­ing the com­pound, who re­sponded with tear gas. There were no in­juries on either side and no Amer­i­can staff were evac­u­ated from the com­pound.

The Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces, an um­brella group of state-al­lied mili­tias — many backed by Iran —

called on its sup­port­ers to with­draw in re­sponse to an ap­peal by the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, say­ing “your mes­sage has been re­ceived.”

By late af­ter­noon the tents had been taken down and the protesters re­lo­cated to the op­po­site side of the Ti­gris River, out­side the so-called Green Zone hous­ing gov­ern­ment of­fices and for­eign em­bassies. U.S. Apache he­li­copters cir­cled over­head.

“Af­ter achiev­ing the in­tended aim, we pulled out from this place tri­umphantly,“said Fad­hil alGezzi, a mili­tia sup­porter. “We rubbed Amer­ica’s nose in the dirt.” Trump has vowed to ex­act a “big price” for an at­tack he blamed squarely on Iran.

Kataeb Hezbol­lah, the Iran­backed mili­tia tar­geted by the U.S. airstrikes, ini­tially re­fused to leave but later bowed to de­mands to dis­perse. The mili­tia is sep­a­rate from the Hezbol­lah mil­i­tant group in Le­banon, though both are backed by Iran.

“We don’t care about these planes that are fly­ing over the heads of the pick­eters. Nei­ther do we care about the news that Amer­ica will bring Marines,” said Mo­hammed Mohy, a spokesman for Kataeb Hezbol­lah. “On the con­trary, this shows a psy­cho­log­i­cal de­feat and a big men­tal break­down that the Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion is suf­fer­ing from,” he said, be­fore with­draw­ing from the area.

The vi­o­lence came as Iran and its al­lies across the re­gion have faced un­prece­dented mass protests in re­cent months and heavy U.S. sanc­tions have cratered Iran’s econ­omy.

Iraq has been gripped by antigov­ern­ment protests since Oc­to­ber

fu­eled by anger at wide­spread cor­rup­tion and eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment, as well as Iran’s heavy in­flu­ence over the coun­try’s af­fairs. Those protesters were not in­volved in the em­bassy at­tack.

The Pen­tagon sent an in­fantry bat­tal­ion of about 750 sol­diers to the Mid­dle East. A U.S. of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the de­ci­sion said they would go to Kuwait. Pom­peo post­poned a trip that was sched­uled to start in Ukraine late Thurs­day so that he can mon­i­tor de­vel­op­ments in Iraq and “en­sure the safety and se­cu­rity of Amer­i­cans in the Mid­dle East,” said State Depart­ment spokeswoma­n Morgan Orta­gus.

Iran de­nied in­volve­ment in the at­tack on the em­bassy. Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei was quoted by me­dia as say­ing that “if the Is­lamic Repub­lic makes a de­ci­sion to con­front any coun­try, it will do it di­rectly.”

Iran later sum­moned the Swiss charge d’af­faires, who rep­re­sents Amer­i­can in­ter­ests in Tehran, to protest what it said was war­mon­ger­ing by U.S. of­fi­cials.

Pub­lic con­sular op­er­a­tions at the em­bassy were sus­pended and fu­ture ap­point­ments can­celed, it said in a state­ment.

Ten­sions have steadily risen since Trump with­drew the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nu­clear deal with world pow­ers and em­barked on a cam­paign of max­i­mum pres­sure through eco­nomic sanc­tions. Iran has re­sponded by aban­don­ing some of its com­mit­ments un­der the deal.

U.S. of­fi­cials have blamed Iran for the sab­o­tage of oil tankers in the Per­sian Gulf and a drone at­tack on Saudi oil fa­cil­i­ties in Septem­ber that caused a spike in world oil prices. But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has not re­sponded with di­rect mil­i­tary ac­tion, ap­par­ently fear­ing a wider con­flict.

The U.S. has sent more than 14,000 ad­di­tional troops to the Gulf re­gion since May in re­sponse to con­cerns about Ira­nian ag­gres­sion. At the time of the at­tack, the U.S. had about 5,200 troops in Iraq.

AH­MAD AL-RUBAYE/GETTY-AFP

An Iraqi lifts a poster show­ing Qais al-Khaz­ali, com­man­der of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq pro-Iran fac­tion, in front of the U.S. Em­bassy in Bagh­dad on Wed­nes­day.

AH­MAD AL-RUBAYE/GETTY-AFP

Sup­port­ers and mem­bers of the Hashed al-Shaabi para­mil­i­tary force try to scale a wall of the U.S. Em­bassy in Bagh­dad on Wed­nes­day.

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