U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday accused Iran of orchestrating a violent demonstration at the American embassy in Baghdad, warning Iran would be held responsible.
Dozens of Iraqi Shiite militiamen and their supporters broke into the Embassy compound in Baghdad earlier Tuesday, smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire, angered over deadly U.S. airstrikes targeting the Iran-backed militia.
"We strongly responded, and always will," Trump said Tuesday.
"Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!"
Trump tweeted from his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, where he is in the midst of two-week plus vacation.
He's been largely out of sight and the tweet marked his first comment on the weekend U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw flames rising from inside the compound and at least three U.S. soldiers on the roof of the main embassy building.
Guards hit back with stun grenades and tear gas and Iraqi officials said the ambassador and other staff had been evacuated but this could not be confirmed with American officials.
A man on a loudspeaker urged the mob not to enter the compound, saying: "The message was delivered."
There were no reports of casualties. The State Department said all American personnel were safe, and there were no plans to evacuate the embassy.
On Sunday, U.S. planes had attacked bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia, a move that risks drawing Iraq further into a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran at a time when mass protests are challenging Iraq's political system.
The attack on the Kataib Hezbollah militia was in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base.
The two Iraqi foreign ministry officials did not say when the U.S. ambassador or other staff had left but added that a few embassy protection staff remained.
Outside the embassy, protesters threw stones at the gate while others chanted, "No, no, America! ... No, no, Trump!" Iraqi special forces were deployed around the main gate to prevent them from entering the embassy. U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi Counter-Terrorism forces were later dispatched to reinforce these units.
'Closed in the name of the people'
Iraqis have been taking to the streets in their thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government.
But on Tuesday, it was these militias who were spraying "Closed in the name of the people" on the gates of the U.S. Embassy and smashing the surveillance cameras around the building with bricks and stones. Some set up tents in preparation for a sit-in.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Iran was responsible for the disorder.
Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior militia leaders were among the protesters.
"Americans are unwanted in Iraq. They are a source of evil and we want them to leave," Khazali told Reuters. Khazali is one of the most feared and respected Shi'ite militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran's most important allies.
Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.
Militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, and Badr Organiation leader Hadi al-Amiri were also at the protest.
First published: 17:16 , 12.31.19