Supporters of an Iran-backed terrorist group began to withdraw from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Jan. 1, a day after they stormed the outer perimeter and prompted President Donald Trump to dispatch extra troops to the region and threaten reprisals against Iran.
Dozens of attackers linked to the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah terrorist group smashed a main door to the embassy compound on Dec. 31 and set fire to a reception area, but didn’t breach the inner compound. The attack was in response to U.S. airstrikes that targeted the same terrorist group and killed at least 25 people. No U.S. casualties or evacuations were reported after the attack.
The day after, demonstrators outside the embassy waved Iraqi and Kataib Hezbollah flags, hurled rocks, and chanted “death to America.” The embassy’s outer walls were left with scorch marks and graffiti. U.S. forces stationed atop rooftops fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. American Apache helicopters flew overhead and dropped flares over the area in what the U.S. military called a “show of force.”
By mid-afternoon, most of the protesters appeared to have obeyed a call to withdraw issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group that, at the time of its formation, was composed of Iran-backed militia and terrorist groups, including Kataib Hezbollah.
Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound, while others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.
The protests mark a new turn in tensions between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East. Iran’s economy has been crippled by sanctions Trump reimposed upon Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Since the withdrawal, Tehran has publicly breached the nuclear deal, ramped up its nuclear program, and attacked oil shipping vessels in the Persian Gulf.
Trump on Dec. 31 threatened to retaliate against Iran for the attack on the embassy but later said he didn’t want to go to war. The measured approach is similar to last summer, when Trump called off airstrikes against Iran in response to the downing of an American drone.
The Iranian regime’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Jan. 1 condemned the U.S. attacks. Iran summoned a Swiss envoy who represents U.S. interests in Tehran to complain about what it described as “warmongering” words from Washington.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a written statement on Dec. 31 that “in response to recent events” in Iraq, and at Trump’s direction, he authorized the immediate deployment of the infantry battalion from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He did not specify the soldiers’ destination, but a U.S. official familiar with the decision said they will go to Kuwait.
“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” Esper said.
Additional soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s quick-deployment brigade, known officially as its Immediate Response Force, were prepared to deploy, Esper said. The U.S. official who anonymously provided unreleased details said the full brigade of about 4,000 soldiers may deploy.
The 750 soldiers deploying immediately were in addition to 14,000 U.S. troops deployed to the Gulf region since May in response to concerns about Iranian aggression, including its alleged sabotage of commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf. At the time of the attack, the United States had about 5,200 troops in Iraq, mainly to train Iraqi forces and help them combat ISIS terrorists.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a supporter of Trump’s Iran policy, called the embassy breach “yet another reckless escalation” by Iran.
“When an Iran-backed militia killed an American in Iraq last week, it met with a firm response. Now our embassy in Baghdad—sovereign U.S. territory—has been attacked in yet another reckless escalation. As the President notes, Iran must be held responsible,” Cotton wrote on Twitter on Dec. 31.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) blamed Iran for the episode but faulted Trump for his “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic regime.
“The results so far have been more threats against international commerce, emboldened and more violent proxy attacks across the Middle East, and now, the death of an American citizen in Iraq,” Menendez said, referring to the rocket attack on Dec. 27.
Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces found themselves on the same side during Iraq’s 2014–2017 war against the ISIS terrorist group, with both powers helping the government recapture territory from the terrorist group, which had overrun a third of Iraq.
Since then, U.S. troops have yet to leave, while the Iran-backed militias and terrorist groups have been incorporated into the security forces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi, who has already announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people were killed, is backed by Iran and its allies.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.