Supporters of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia attempted to storm the US embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday as thousands of people protested against American air strikes that killed at least 25 people.
Images posted on social media showed smoke billowing around the high walls surrounding the compound and protesters throwing stones into the embassy and chanting anti-American slogans. Reuters reported that Iraqi security forces fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.
The protests were triggered by US air strikes against five sites in Iraq and Syria associated with Kata’ib Hizbollah, an Iran-aligned militia, on Sunday, that killed at least 25 fighters. Washington launched that attack after it blamed the militia for a rocket strike on an Iraqi military base hosting US troops on Friday, which killed an American contractor.
Iraqis from across the political spectrum condemned the US strikes and Baghdad said it would review its relationship with Washington.
The attacks have raised the risk that Iraq, which hosts about 5,000 American troops, could become an arena for confrontation between the US and Iran. As tensions between Washington and Iran have escalated in the past year, diplomats and analysts have warned that Tehran could use its regional proxies to attack US interests and those of its regional allies.
The US withdrew all non-essential staff from its diplomatic missions in Iraq in May amid warnings about unspecified “escalatory action” by Iran.
Washington has blamed Tehran for attacks that struck at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure in September and the sabotage of tankers in the Gulf in May and June.
Iraq is home to myriad militia groups that are backed by Tehran. US officials say there have been 11 attacks on Iraqi bases hosting US and coalition forces in the past month. But the rocket attack on Friday on a base near Kirkuk was the first in which a US citizen was killed, a red line for the US.
Iran and the US have been the main foreign actors in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. Shia politicians, many of whom have historical links to Iran, have dominated Iraqi politics since.
Baghdad has sought to manage a delicate balance between the competing interests of Iran and the US, but the air strikes have revived Iraqi calls for American troops, who have been fighting Isis and training Iraqi forces, to leave the country.
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, said on Monday that the strikes had been a “defensive action that was designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq”. But he added that the US was “also working on the mission set of restoring deterrence against Iranian aggression”, describing Kata’ib Hizbollah as a “rogue militia”.
The militia is one of the more militant factions in the Popular Mobilisation Units, an umbrella of predominantly Shia militias that were mobilised to fight Isis when the jihadi group was advancing towards Baghdad in 2014.
The PMUs’ role in the battle against Isis saw its influence rise politically and militarily. It is part of the state security forces and many its members have representatives in parliament and the government.
Tension in the region has mounted since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers and imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic. Iraqi politicians have for months feared that their country, which has trade, religious and cultural ties with Iran, would be drawn into the crisis.