Hundreds of protesters breached the outer walls of the heavily fortified US embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday, setting parts of its parameter on fire – an angry reaction to deadly US air raids days earlier against Kataib Hizbollah, an Iran-backed militia.
Most of the protesters, members of the paramilitary group Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces, or PMF), were clad in military fatigues.
PMF is an umbrella organisation of several armed militia groups – including Kataib Hezbollah – funded and armed by Iran, but with formal links to the Iraqi armed forces.
Shouting “Down, Down USA!”, the crowd hurled rocks and water bottles and vandalised security cameras outside the embassy grounds.
The US said it launched the attacks on Sunday – killing at least 25 fighters – in Iraq and Syria in response to a rocket attack on Friday near Kirkuk, which killed an American civilian contractor – an assault Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.
Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi warned the protesters to leave the compound in an effort to bring the increasingly volatile situation under control.
But Mahdi’s warning appeared to have come too late.
Government security forces did not block militia members and their leaders from entering the heavily fortified Green Zone where the US embassy is located, a sign that the Iraqi government may not have full control over the current events.
With US personnel holed up at the embassy and exposed to risk, President Donald Trump issued a stern warning to Iran and Iraq, writing on Twitter: “Iran has orchestrated the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad”.
He warned the US would “hold Iran for responsible” for the rapidly unfolding events in the Iraqi capital.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Prime Minister Mahdi and President Barham Salih that the US “will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq”, the State Department said in a statement.
A US government official told Al Jazeera, on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, that “we are not going to mess around” in terms of protecting US personnel and facilities.
He also said the Iraqi government was obliged under international law to protect the embassy.
Doug Bandow, research fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that US and Iraqi officials were unprepared for the tensions.
Bandow, who served as special assistant to US President Ronald Reagan, criticised the Trump administration for its “lack of good intelligence and understanding” of current Iraqi politics.
“The Trump administration has also poisoned its relations with Iran, which is the key player in Iraq, when it pulled out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and imposed punishing sanctions against it,” he said.
PJ Crowley, former US assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said that the Trump administration’s strategy of ramping up political and economic pressure on Tehran – in the hope of bringing the Islamic Republic’s leaders to the negotiating table to agree to another nuclear agreement – has for two years yielded no results.
Crowley proposed that the larger issue should be about “shifting the focus from what the US is doing in Iraq to what Iran is doing”.
Memories of Iran in 1979
Bandow argued that US leaders should be feeling nervous because Iraq now has a weak and “headless” government, a political environment similar to Iran in 1979 when a group of Iranian students took over the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 American citizens and diplomats hostage for 440 days.
More recently in 2012, a Libyan armed group stormed a US compound amid political vacuum and chaos resulted in two US personnel being killed, including the US ambassador to Libya.
Bandow said however that the Hashd al-Shaabi militia and their sponsors in Tehran understand the risks of escalating the confrontation, because they realise they would lose in a military showdown.
The near-future, he said, “depends on how the Iraqi government manages the current crisis”.
Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports