U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad stormed by protesters after Iraq airstrikes

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(NBC) – Dozens of people stormed the compound of the United States embassy in Iraq on Tuesday in response to American airstrikes that killed dozens of fighters from an Iran-backed militia group.

Guards inside the embassy used tear gas to try and prevent demonstrators from moving towards main buildings inside the compound, an Iraqi security source told NBC News on condition of anonymity.

American fighter jets on Sunday bombed weapons depots in Iraq and Syria that the U.S. said were linked with a group called Kataeb Hezbollah, which it blames for attacks on coalition bases in recent months.

At least 25 militia fighters were killed in the airstrikes, and on Tuesday a large crowd of supporters gathered after funerals for some of the dead and marched on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

They chanted “Down, Down USA!” while hurling water bottles and smashing security cameras, according to The Associated Press. An AP reporter at the scene saw flames rising from inside the compound and at least three U.S. soldiers on the roof of the main building inside the embassy.

At least 62 demonstrators were injured by live bullets and tear gas, according to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group for the militias recognized by the Iraqi government. NBC News could not independently verify this claim.

There were roughly 6,000 protesters at the height of the demonstrations, a U.S. official estimated, composed mostly of Kataib Hezbollah members.

The embassy was on lockdown by evening, but American personnel were not being evacuated, according to a U.S. official was knowledge of the situation. The official said discussions were underway about next steps should an evacuation be necessary.

President Donald Trump, who tweeted that he expected protection from Iraq’s security forces, accused Iran of orchestrating the attack, and said the Iranian government “will be held fully responsible.” His press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, said the president will choose “how and when we respond to their escalation.”

The U.S. is planning to ramp up security around the embassy, deploying roughly 100 Marines, according to a Defense Department official. Additional security was being provided by Apaches from an air weapons team.

Half of the Marines providing additional security reinforcement have landed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad via two Osprey aircraft, while the other half es en route to the embassy.

Democrats said the embassy attack was the latest example of the failure of the Trump administration’s policy in the region. “It’s hard to overstate what a total failure Trump’s Iran policy has been,” Ben Rhodes, a top national security aide in the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter. “Nuclear program resumed. Regional provocations escalated. US isolated.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Ct., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the attacks were a reminder of how “catastrophic” the year has been for U.S. interests in the Middle East, and tweeted a long list of problems in the region.

“Really hard to overstate how badly Trump has bungled things in the Middle East,” he wrote on Twitter. “One of the only good things going — anti-Iran street protests in Iraq — have now morphed into anti-U.S. protests thanks to Trump’s mishandling of Iran policy.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih separately by phone on Tuesday and told them “the United States will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq,” according to a State Department statement.

“Both Abdul-Mahdi and Salih assured the Secretary that they took seriously their responsibility for and would guarantee the safety and security of U.S. personnel and property,” the statement said.

Matthew Tueller, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, was out of the country during the protests, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation told NBC News.

Abdul-Mahdi issued a statement urging people to leave the U.S. embassy, warning that “any aggressive behavior against foreign embassies” will be “strictly stopped by security forces” and punished by law.

The clashes follow anti-government protests in recent months in which hundreds of people have been killed, according to protest groups, most of them by Iraqi security forces. The mass uprisings prompted the resignation last month of the prime minister, who remains in a caretaker capacity.

The U.S. blames the militant group Kataeb Hezbollah for 11 attacks on bases used by the U.S.-led coalition over the past two months. The latest of these came on Friday, when a rocket attack killed a U.S. contractor and injured four other American service members.

The U.S. airstrikes have been met with an angry reaction from both Iran and Iraq.

The U.S. has some 5,000 troops in Iraq train and assist government troops in the fight against the Islamic State militant group. But the Iraqi government is also allied with a powerful network of militia groups, many of which are backed by or linked to Tehran.

Tehran called the U.S. airstrikes “terrorism” and Iraq called them a “violation” of its sovereignty. The militia targeted has vowed to respond.

CORRECTION (Dec. 31, 2019, 10:31 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified the White House press secretary. She is Stephanie Grisham, not Graham.

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