Iranian-backed paramilitary groups protesting U.S. air strikes in Iraq withdrew from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday after a second day of protests, even as 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.
The protests targeted the U.S. in response to American airstrikes on an Iranian-backed militia group, Kataeb Hezbollah, on Sunday, which Washington in turn said was a response to the killing of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack last week.
Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, 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.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a speech on state television, denounced the American attack on the Hashed 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.”
“Be logical,” Khamenei told Trump. “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.
The U.S. Defense Department 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.
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.
Tuesday’s incident involved the pro-Iranian protesters using battering rams to smash through a steel door at a visitors center, setting fires and burning a security post before Iraqi security forces drove them back with tear gas and stun grenades. The embassy building itself was not damaged, and none of the crowd entered.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that terrorists orchestrated the 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.
Pompeo stressed that the attack “should not be confused with the legitimate efforts of Iraqi protesters who have been in the streets since October, working for the people of Iraq to end the corruption exported there by the Iranian regime.”
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Photo “Baghdad Iranian Embassy Protesters” by Fox News.