Iran-backed militiamen withdrew from the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Wednesday after two days of clashes with American security forces, but U.S.-Iran tensions remain high and could spill over into further violence.
The withdrawal followed calls from the government and senior militia leaders. It ended a two-day crisis marked by the breach of the largest and one of the most heavily fortified U.S. diplomatic missions in the world. The attack prompted the Pentagon to send hundreds of additional troops to the Middle East.
In an orchestrated assault, hundreds of militiamen and their supporters broke into the embassy compound, destroying a reception area, smashing windows and spraying graffiti on walls to protest U.S. airstrikes against an Iran-backed militia over the weekend that killed 25 fighters.
The U.S. blamed the militia for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in the northern city of Kirkuk last week that killed a U.S. contractor.
The protesters set up a tent camp overnight and on Wednesday set fire to the reception area and hurled stones at U.S. Marines guarding the compound, who responded with tear gas. There were no injuries on either side and no American staff were evacuated from the compound.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of state-allied militias — many backed by Iran — called on its supporters to withdraw in response to an appeal by the Iraqi government, saying “your message has been received.”
By late afternoon the tents had been taken down and the protesters relocated to the opposite side of the Tigris River, outside the so-called Green Zone housing government offices and foreign embassies. U.S. Apache helicopters circled overhead.
“After achieving the intended aim, we pulled out from this place triumphantly,” said Fadhil al-Gezzi, a militia supporter. “We rubbed America’s nose in the dirt.”
Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia targeted by the U.S. airstrikes, initially refused to leave but later bowed to demands to disperse. The militia is separate from the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, though both are backed by Iran.
“We don’t care about these planes that are flying over the heads of the picketers. Neither do we care about the news that America will bring Marines,” said Mohammed Mohy, a spokesman for Kataeb Hezbollah. “On the contrary, this shows a psychological defeat and a big mental breakdown that the American administration is suffering from,” he said, before withdrawing from the area.
The violence came as Iran and its allies across the region have faced unprecedented mass protests in recent months and heavy U.S. sanctions have cratered Iran’s economy.
Iraq has been gripped by anti-government protests since October fueled by anger at widespread corruption and economic mismanagement, as well as Iran’s heavy influence over the country’s affairs. Those protesters were not involved in the embassy attack.
President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the attack on the embassy and the Pentagon dispatched an infantry battalion of about 750 soldiers to the Middle East. A U.S. official familiar with the decision said they would go to Kuwait.
Iran denied involvement in the attack on the embassy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted by media as saying that “if the Islamic Republic makes a decision to confront any country, it will do it directly.”
Iran later summoned the Swiss charge d’affaires, who represents American interests in Tehran, to protest what it said was war-mongering by U.S. officials.