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Mob Angered By Airstrikes Tries To Storm U.S. Embassy Compound In Baghdad

Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound on Tuesday in Baghdad. [Khalid Mohammed / AP]
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound on Tuesday in Baghdad.

Iranian-backed militia members and their supporters threw rocks and set fires at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday. Marines in the compound fired tear gas at the crowds as President Trump called on Iraq to intervene with force.

"U.S. personnel are secure and there has been no breach," a State Department spokesperson said. "There are no plans to evacuate Embassy Baghdad." The spokesperson added that the U.S. ambassador had been travelling and is not returning to the embassy.

A U.S. military official confirmed to NPR that additional Marines were being dispatched from the region to shore up security at the embassy. The massive and highly fortified embassy compound also contains offices, residences and other facilities for the staff.

The protesters are angry about a series of U.S. airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia on Sunday that killed at least 25 people.

The group is formally part of Iraq's security forces, though U.S. officials have questioned whether Iraq has control over it. KH has been staging attacks on bases used by U.S.-led coalition forces. One such attack on Friday killed a U.S. military contractor and wounded two U.S. service members.

"We responded defensively to the Iranian proxy attack that killed an American citizen and wounded American and Iraqi soldiers," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted. "Now, Iranian backed groups are threatening our Embassy in Baghdad."

Pompeo added that he spoke with Iraq's president and prime minister to "reiterate their obligation to protect our U.S. personnel and property." Likewise, Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the attack and said "we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy."

According to a State Department readout of Pompeo's calls, the Iraqi officials "assured the Secretary that they took seriously their responsibility for and would guarantee the safety and security of U.S. personnel and property."

The Associated Press spoke to Yassine al-Yasseri, Iraq's interior minister, at the scene. According to the wire service, he said he viewed the attack as a product of the U.S. strikes. "This is one of the implications," he said. "This is a problem and is embarrassing to the government."

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the embassy attack.

The protest started after funerals of some of the militia members killed by U.S. airstrikes.

Photos and videos from the scene showed angry crowds smashing windows, throwing rocks, and tipping over cars as smoke and flames rose from inside the sprawling compound. Video posted by Washington Post reporter Mustafa Salim showed crowds pushing into one of the compound's main gate, as Iraqi forces try to push them back with tear gas. Another video from Salim shows a small security outpost on fire outside the compound's walls.

As the AP reported, a person on a loudspeaker pleaded for the crowd to stop trying to enter the compound. "The message was delivered," he said in an effort to turn back the protesters. Security personnel also fired stun grenades at the protesters, according to Reuters.

It does not immediately appear that protesters made it very far within the embassy compound. According to eyewitness reports from the AP, after they pushed their way in, "protesters stopped in a corridor after about 5 meters (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."

Protesters told AP reporters that they planned to stage a sit-in and were pitching tents outside the compound's walls. As night fell in Baghdad, the protest group appeared far smaller than earlier in the day.

Earlier this year, Pompeo ordered all non-emergency embassy personnel to leave Iraq. According to the Pentagon Inspector General's report to Congress, there are 352 staff members between the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate General in Erbil as of October – down from 563 before Pompeo's order. There are also more than 1,000 contractor staff, according to the report.

Prior to the attack on the embassy compound, Pompeo said in an interview that the airstrikes served to protect U.S. citizens in Iraq and were also aimed at deterring Iran. "Our mission continues to try and get the Islamic Republic of Iran to behave like a normal nation," he said.

The State Department has said that the Iranian-backed militia targeted in the airstrikes receives weapons and other support from Iran's elite Quds Force. The airstrikes Sunday also hit two militia position in Syria.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's office has said that he spoke to the U.S. Secretary of Defense prior to the U.S. airstrikes and asked him to call them off. He has criticized the strikes as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.