Iranian-backed paramilitary groups protesting U.S. airstrikes in Iraq withdrew from the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad Wednesday after a second day of protests while Tehran and Washington traded threats.
Earlier, U.S. security personnel fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of demonstrators after they hurled rocks at the building, and tried to set fire to its walls and security booths at the compound’s main entrance.
Wednesday’s protest came a day after a mob tried to storm into the embassy, They got as far as a security perimeter, where they used a battering ram to knock down the steel door of a visitor’s center and set a security post on fire.
The protesters are angered by Sunday’s U.S. airstrikes on an Iranian-backed militia group, Kataeb Hezbollah, action the U.S. says was a response to the killing of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack last week.
U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook told CNN, “Our diplomats are safe and so is our embassy. Today the situation is much better. There is no imminent threat to American property or personnel.”
But the Pentagon is sending an additional 750 troops to the Middle East in what Defense Secretary Mark Esper called “an appropriate and precautionary action.”
“We rely on host nation forces to assist in the protection of our personnel in country, and we call on the government of Iraq to fulfill its international responsibilities to do so,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is postponing this week’s five-nation European and Central Asian tour, which was supposed to have begun Friday in Ukraine.
A State Department spokeswoman said Pompeo “needs” to be in Washington “to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East.”
Pompeo tweeted Tuesday that terrorists orchestrated the embassy attack. He named Kataeb Hezbollah militia commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, along with Qays al-Khazali, Hadi al-Amari and Faleh al-Fayyad, and posted a picture of all four outside the embassy.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a speech on state television denounced the American attack on the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary network in western Iraq.
“I and the government and the nation of Iran strongly condemn this American crime,” Khamenei said.
The Iranian leader claimed Tehran had nothing to do with the Baghdad protests, condemning U.S. President Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve threat that Iran “will pay a very big price” if it damaged the U.S. Embassy or injured American personnel stationed there. “This is not a warning,” Trump said. “It is a threat.”
Khamenei responded to Trump, saying, “Be logical. … The people of this region hate America. Why don’t Americans understand this? You Americans have committed crimes in Iraq, you have committed crimes in Afghanistan. You have killed people.”
Despite the conflict, Trump said he did not see the demonstrations escalating into a war.
“I don’t think Iran would want that to happen. It would go very quickly,” Trump said, touting superior U.S. military strength.
Trump spoke Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi about the need to protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, and in his late-night comments to reporters he thanked the Iraqi government.
“They stepped up very nicely,” Trump said.