In Depth

Furious Iraqis withdraw from US embassy siege in Baghdad

Iraq is caught in the middle of the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran

After two days of tension, thousands of pro-Iranian protesters dispersed from their encampment around the US embassy in Baghdad yesterday, cooling a siege that has trapped embassy staff inside the compound.

The demonstrations represented a major crisis for the Trump administration, and have called into question its relationship with the Iraqi government - a strategic partner.

Washington has accused Iran of orchestrating the protests, and has sent 750 troops to Iraq in response to the incident.

Why did the protests happen?

The protests outside the embassy began after the US conducted airstrikes against Keta’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia with ties to the Iranian government, killing at least 25 of their fighters. Immediately after holding prayer services for the dead, angry funeral goers proceeded to the US embassy and attempted to storm it.

The area surrounding the US embassy is supposed to be impassable to protesters, and has been closely guarded in the past by Iraqi security services, but when hundreds of supporters of Keta’ib Hezbollah marched on the embassy, they were allowed to do so without hindrance.

“Angered crowds marched unimpeded through the checkpoints of the usually high-security Green Zone to the embassy gates,” reports Al Jazeera. “They broke through a reception area, chanting 'Death to America' and spraying pro-Iran graffiti on the walls.”

“The demonstrators did not break into the embassy buildings, but their ability to storm the most heavily guarded zone in Baghdad prompted speculation that they had received at least tacit permission from Iraqi security officials sympathetic to their demands,” says Politico.

Why did Washington strike Keta’ib Hezbollah?

The US airstrikes came after a rocket attack on Friday on an Iraqi base that killed an American contractor. According to a statement released by the US Defence Department, the strikes on Keta’ib Hezbollah in Iraq were in response to “repeated Kata'ib Hizbollah (KH) attacks on Iraqi bases that host… coalition forces”.

“Recent KH strikes included a 30-plus rocket attack on an Iraqi base near Kirkuk that resulted in the death of a US citizen and injured four US service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces,” the statement said.

The role of Tehran and Washington

While the protesters who stormed the US embassy were reacting directly to US airstrikes, this week’s events in Baghdad cannot be seen outside the context of the increasing tension between the US and Iran.

In May 2018 President Donald Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the Obama administration’s JCPOA - or the Iran Nuclear Deal - and replaced it with a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and other measures against Iran.

Since then, the regime in Tehran has acted with increased assertiveness, and 2019 saw multiple attacks by Iran on Saudi oil facilities and international tankers as they passed through the Strait of Hormuz, as it sought to counterbalance the US sanctions crippling its economy.

At the same time, Tehran has worked tirelessly to increase its influence on Iraqi politics, with documents obtained by The Intercept revealing “years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life.”

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Violation of Iraqi sovereignty

However, despite their close ties to Iran, Keta’ib Hezbollah are officially part of the Iraqi security forces, and US airstrikes against them on Iraqi soil without the permission of the government in Baghdad have infuriated some in Iraq.

This, at least in part, could explain why Iraqi security forces did not attempt to stop the protesters who approached the US embassy.

“The prime minister described the American attack on the Iraqi armed forces as an unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences,” said the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in a statement on Monday.

With recent protests in Iraq focusing at least in part on what Iraqis see as undue Iranian influence on their internal affairs, some analysts fear the Trump administration’s airstrikes and the embassy siege that followed have distracted from that, and have thus run counter to US interests in the region.

“US overreach is likely how Iran and its allies hoped the United States would respond to their provocations,” says Lawfare. “By stepping into this familiar trap, the Trump administration has once again made the United States the focus of Iraqis’ ire, relieving some of the pressure on Iran that has been building over several months of popular protests in Iraq.”


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