The United States said on Tuesday it is sending hundreds more troops to the Middle East, after protesters stormed its embassy compound in Iraq, setting fires and chanting “Death to America!”
Angered by US air strikes that killed two dozen paramilitary fighters on Sunday, hundreds of men spilled through checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone on Tuesday, demanding the ouster of American troops from Iraq.
Reacting to the attack, US President Donald Trump said he holds Tehran “fully responsible” for the incident, and vowed that the protesters “will be held fully responsible,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
“In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the attack was “orchestrated by terrorists,” one of whom he named as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Muhandis has been identified as second-in-command of the Tehran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary group which includes Kataeb Hezbollah, the group that was targeted in the US air strikes.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement that around 750 troops from a rapid response unit of the 82nd Airborne Division are prepared to deploy over the next several days to the region.
“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” he said.
A social media post from the US Marines said that the troops from its crisis response command in Kuwait were deployed to Iraq.
— U.S. Marines (@USMC) December 31, 2019
On Sunday, the US launched air attacks on sites in Iraq and Syria belonging to Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia, that Washington said was in retaliation for the killing of a US contractor on an Iraqi military base.
At least 25 fighters from Kataib Hezbollah were killed in the attack.
That triggered the protest and storming of the US embassy compound on Tuesday.
The protesters raised flags of the powerful paramilitary group Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), with which Kataib Hezbollah is associated.
Downturn in Iraq-US relations
The developments represent a major downturn in Iraq-US relations that could further undermine US influence in the region and weaken Washington’s hand in its pressure campaign against Iran.
Iraq has long struggled to balance its ties with the US and Iran, both allies of the Iraqi government.
But the government’s angry reaction to the US air attacks signalled a deterioration of US-Iraq relations.
To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2019
Iraqi security forces made no effort to stop the protesters as they marched to the heavily-fortified Green Zone after a funeral held for those killed in the US air attacks, letting them pass through a security checkpoint leading to the area.
Seven armoured vehicles with about 30 Iraqi soldiers arrived near the embassy hours after the violence erupted, deploying near the embassy walls but not close to the breached area. Four vehicles carrying riot police approached the embassy later but were forced back by the protesters who blocked their path.
Following the attack, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Salih that the US “will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign an independent Iraq,” the State Department said in a statement.
Both Abdul Mahdi and Salih assured Pompeo that “they took seriously their responsibility for and would guarantee the safety and security of US personnel and property,” the statement said.
Al Jazeera and news agencies