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 and its volatile aftermath prompted the Pentagon to send hundreds of additional troops to the Middle East an d U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to delay a European and Central Asian trip.
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.” Trump has vowed to exact a “big price” for an attack he blamed squarely on Iran.
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.