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Iraqi Paramilitaries Withdraw From U.S. Embassy In Baghdad

U.S. forces (unseen) fire teargas canisters at supporters and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force during a demonstration outside the US embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on January 1, 2020.
U.S. forces (unseen) fire teargas canisters at supporters and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force during a demonstration outside the US embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on January 1, 2020.

Iraq's military said pro-Iran paramilitary groups have withdrawn from outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a day after a mob attacked the compound, prompting U.S. authorities to deploy hundreds more troops to the region.

The January 1 statement by Iraq's military command followed a call earlier in the day from the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group for its supporters to withdraw from the compound.

The umbrella group, which is made up of mainly Shi'ite militia members, had been one of the lead organizers of the angry protests at the American facility in response to U.S. air strikes in Iraq earlier in the week.

The crowds chanted "'Death to America!" and set fires as they breached an outer perimeter of the embassy on December 31.

They did not, however, enter the main compound. Many of those involved were seen carrying flags of the Kataib Hizbullah, or Hezbollah Brigades, a paramilitary group supported by Iran.

The violence prompted U.S. troops protecting the facility to fire tear gas to try and disperse the crowds, who had camped out overnight.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that he called Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih to warn them of "their obligation to protect our U.S. personnel and property."

The confrontation at the Baghdad facility was the some of the worst mob violence to target U.S. forces in Iraq. It also appeared to be the worst to target against a U.S. diplomatic facility anywhere since the assault against a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed.

The Baghdad protesters were angry over U.S. air strikes on December 29 that killed at least 25 members of an Iran-backed militant group. Reuters reported that 12 militiamen were also wounded.

The United States said the air strikes were aimed at five targets, and were in response to repeated Kataib Hizbullah attacks on bases that house U.S. troops, including one on December 27 that killed a U.S. defense contractor and injured U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is located in a heavily fortified government district known as the Green Zone. It has been targeted by rocket and mortar attacks in the past, but access to the district is strictly controlled.

After the initial mob attack on the facility on December 31, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said 750 additional troops would be sent to the Middle East and more in the coming days

"The United States will protect our people and interests anywhere they are found around the world," Esper said in a statement.

U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, blamed Iran specifically for the attack on the embassy.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” Trump said in a post to Twitter December 31.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE!” Trump wrote, adding, “Happy New Year!”

Despite the threats, Trump later told journalists he does not want, or foresee, war with Iran.

“Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening," he told reporters as he visited the resort he owns in Florida.

Iran's supreme leader on January 1 condemned the U.S. air strikes, while blaming Washington for the violence in the country.

"The Iranian government, nation, and I strongly condemn the attacks," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by state media.

He also dismissed U.S. accusations that Tehran orchestrated the protests.

"If Iran wants to fight a country, it will do so openly,” he said while adding that "Americans need to understand that people in the region, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, hate them for their crimes."

Meanwhile, Tehran summoned a senior official from the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, to complain about American "warmongering" in neighboring Iraq, the Foreign Ministry said.

Tehran has denied it was behind the violent protests at the U.S. Embassy.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, IRNA and Mehr

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