Iraqi paramilitary groups called on their members to pull back from the US embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday, a day after Iranian-backed militiamen and their supporters attempted to storm the diplomatic mission.
The attacks on the embassy have triggered the biggest US crisis in Iraq for years, caused the Trump administration to deploy more troops to the region and heightened tensions between Washington and Iran.
Thousands of militiamen and their supporters besieged the hulking mission on Tuesday, throwing rocks into the embassy, attacking security infrastructure and setting fires around its perimeter.
US security forces fired tear gas at crowds who gathered around the embassy, the largest in the world, for a second day on Wednesday. Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, an umbrella group of paramilitary forces, later issued a statement calling on its supporters to withdraw from the mission’s perimeter saying their “message had been heard”.
The protests were sparked by US air strikes on Sunday against Kata’ib Hizbollah, one of the more militant and pro-Iranian militias in the PMU, which killed at least 25 fighters. Washington launched the strikes against five of the militia’s sites after accusing the group of firing a barrage of rockets at an Iraqi base housing US troops, killing an American contractor.
President Donald Trump has blamed Iran for the attacks on the US embassy, saying the Islamic republic would be “held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities”. “They will pay a very BIG PRICE!” he said on Twitter.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, responded to Mr Trump on Wednesday by saying “you can’t do anything”.
“If you were logical — which you’re not — you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan . . . have made nations hate you,” he said on Twitter. “We’re not after wars, but we strongly defend the Iranian nation’s interests, dignity, & glory. If anyone threatens that, we will unhesitatingly confront & strike them.”
Iran also summoned the Swiss charge d’affairs to Tehran to complain about American “warmongering statements”. Switzerland serves as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran because the two nations do not have formal diplomatic relations.
The attacks marked the biggest escalation between the US and Iranian-allied Iraqi factions in years and underscored the risk of Iraq becoming a theatre for confrontation in the stand-off between Washington and Tehran.
The Trump administration, which has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, said Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have launched 11 attacks on Iraq bases hosting US and coalition forces in the past two months.
Washington has also said an attack on an oil-pipeline in Saudi Arabia in May was launched from Iraq, and the same month it withdrew non-essential staff from its diplomatic missions in the country citing unspecified “escalatory” Iranian activity.
The US has about 5,000 troops in Iraq, which have been involved in the fight against Isis and training Iraqi forces. Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said late on Tuesday that Washington would immediately deploy an additional 750 troops to the region in response to the embassy attacks.
Washington’s influence in the country has waned in recent years, while Iran’s role has been cemented with the political and military rise of Shia militias it backs and which dominate the PMU.
The PMU was established after militias, predominantly from Iraq’s Shia majority, were mobilised to fight Isis in 2014. The paramilitary force has since become a formal part of Iraq’s security apparatus, and the group’s political wing, Fatah, is one of the most powerful members of the coalition government. But the PMU’s critics fear that the more militant elements within the grouping are Iranian proxies.
With Iraq already in the grip of political crisis caused by months of anti-government demonstrations, Iraqis from across the political spectrum have condemned the US air strikes as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and Baghdad has warned it will review its relations with Washington.
Crisis Group, a think-tank, said the tit-for tat attacks may now “enable the Iran-backed groups to mobilise popular support for what would otherwise be a highly unpopular move: to kick out US and other Western troops through a parliamentary vote, and establish a new government more amenable to catering to Iranian interests”.
“Should this chain of events lead to a US troop withdrawal and further instability in Iraq, however, both sides are likely to lose,” the Crisis Group said. “Iran and the US may be at loggerheads over the fraying [2015 Iran] nuclear deal, their respective Middle East policies and other matters, but they continue to share an interest in a stable Iraq that neither fully controls as a buffer between them.”