U.S. troops tear gas pro-Iran protesters in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. troops fired tear gas on Wednesday as Iran-backed militiamen and other protesters gathered outside the American Embassy in Baghdad for a second day set fire to the roof of a reception area inside the embassy compound.

Dozens of Iran-allied militiamen and their supporters had camped out at the gates of the embassy overnight, a day after they broke into the compound, trashing a reception area and smashing windows before pulling back. It was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in years.

The U.S. Marines guarding the embassy fired tear gas Wednesday as more crowds arrived and after the protesters lit a fire on the roof of the reception area. Smoke rose from the building. There have been no reports of any injuries since the protests began.

The militiamen were protesting deadly U.S. airstrikes that targeted an Iran-backed militia over the weekend, killing 25 fighters. Those strikes were in response to a rocket attack on an Iraqi army base that killed a U.S. contractor.

The violence comes as Iran and its allies have faced unprecedented mass protests in recent months and after heavy U.S. sanctions on Iran that have cratered its economy and raised tensions across the region. In Iraq, the protesters have been angered at their own government's corruption and economic mismanagement, as well as its close ties to Tehran.

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U.S. soldiers fire tear gas towards protesters who broke into the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property and wave militia flags in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters damage property inside the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters smash a window inside the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
U.S. soldiers fire tear gas to stop protesters inside U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
U.S. soldiers fire tear gas to stop protesters inside U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property inside the U.S. embassy compund, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraqi protesters try to disable the camera on the outer wall of the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iraqi protesters throw stones at the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by SABAH ARAR / AFP) (Photo by SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Iraqi protesters throw stones at the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi security forces stands guard in front of the outer wall of the US embassy in the capital Baghdad during a protest on December 31, 2019, to denounce the weekend's air strikes by US planes on several bases belonging to the Hezbollah brigades near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [A member of the Iraqi security forces] instead of [An armed member of [An armed member of Iraq's pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary group] Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters hold flags and placards as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Irak'ta ii milis gücü Hadi abi yanls protestocular, ABD'nin Badat Büyükelçilii binasn basarak içeri girdi. ABD yönetiminin Hadi abieya bal Hizbullah Tugaylar'na düzenledii saldry protesto etmek için bakent Badat'taki ABD Büyükelçilii önünde toplanan protestocular, Hizbullah bayraklar ve dövizler tad. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters hold flags and placards as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters hold flags and placards as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
An Iraqi protester holds up a sign that he took off from outside the US embassy in Baghdad after breaching the outer wall of the diplomatic mission during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
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President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the attack on the embassy and Defense Secretary Mark Esper later announced the immediate deployment of an infantry battalion of about 750 soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to the Middle East. He did not specify their destination, but a U.S. official familiar with the decision said they will go to Kuwait.

Iran has denied any involvement in the attack on the embassy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted by state media on Tuesday as warning the U.S. against any “miscalculation” in the worsening standoff.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized the U.S. airstrikes on the Iran-backed Iraqi militia on Sunday. In remarks carried by the semi-official ISNA news agency, he accused the U.S. of taking revenge on Iran for the defeat of the Islamic State group, which he said was an American creation.

In an apparent reference to Trump's allegations of Iranian involvement, Khamenei said that “if the Islamic Republic makes a decision to confront any country, it will do it directly."

The U.S. and Iran have vied for influence over Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Iran has close ties to Iraq's Shiite majority and many of its major political factions, and its influence has steadily grown since then.

Iran helped to mobilize tens of thousands of mostly Shiite militiamen to battle the Islamic State group when it stormed across northern and western Iraq in 2014 as the armed forces collapsed. In the subsequent campaign against the extremists, the U.S. and Iran both provided vital aid to Iraqi forces, who eventually declared victory in December 2017.

The political influence of the Iran-backed militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, has risen in recent years, and their allies dominate the parliament and the government. That has made them the target of mass protests since October that are unrelated to the attack on the embassy.

The anti-government protesters have attacked Iranian diplomatic missions and the local headquarters of parties affiliated with the militias across southern Iraq. They have also set up a major protest camp in central Baghdad.

For weeks, the anti-government protesters have been trying to enter the Green Zone housing the government and the U.S. Embassy, but have been beaten back by security forces, who have killed hundreds of demonstrators.

The militiamen and their supporters, however, were able to quickly enter the Green Zone and mass in front of the embassy, with little if any resistance from authorities.

By Wednesday morning, they had set up a small sit-in of their own, with around 50 tents set up between two main gates about 500 meters (yards) apart. Demonstrators set up a makeshift clinic and cooks with aprons reading “Popular Mobilization Forces logistical support” served meals out of giant pots. Mobile toilets were also set up in the area.

Vehicles belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces, with government plates, were parked nearby, and the militiamen manned checkpoints where they searched all those arriving at the site of the demonstration.

Outside one of the gates, a Shiite cleric recited verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, through a loudspeaker. Another cleric led the protesters in midday prayers.

Demonstrators could be seen hurling rocks over the walls of the embassy compound, where U.S. troops responded by firing tear gas from the roofs of buildings. Iraqi security forces deployed nearby watched the standoff unfold without intervening.

 

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