The US’ continued presence in Iraq was firmly under the spotlight the past weekend, with an attack on the American embassy in Baghdad on Sunday that left one injured, and a major demonstration calling for the expulsion of US troops in the city on Friday.
A senior American commander for the Middle East said on Monday that mortars had been used in the attack, rather than the Katushya rockets initially reported in the press. Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters that the attack caused a fire at the embassy compound. Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi warned the attack could “drag Iraq into becoming a battlefield.”
There was no immediate comment from US President Donald Trump on the attack, but his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the Iraqi government to take “immediate steps” to protect the embassy. The US top diplomat called the attack a “flagrant attack on Iraq’s sovereignty.”
The mortar attack was the third assault on the American embassy this month. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although the US has accused Iran-backed militias of targeting its assets.
An attack on the embassy on December 31 by supporters of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia led to spiralling tensions between Washington and Tehran. On January 3 a US drone strike killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, deputy leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and the founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah.
The US was acting in its “own legitimate self-defense,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said in an interview with CNN on Monday, adding that the Kingdom was against any withdrawal of US troops. “The US has proven time and again to be a reliable ally of the Kingdom,” he said.
Sunday’s attack came two days after a major rally in central Baghdad calling for the removal of US military personnel. The march, organized by prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, drew some thousands into the streets chanting anti-American slogans.
Sadr, a populist and highly influential figure who leads Iraq’s largest parliamentary bloc, withdrew his support for Iraq’s months-long political protests on Saturday. Many of the cleric’s supporters dismantled their tents and left major protest sites around the country, sparking fears it could mean the end for the popular protest movement.
The Sadrists had lent the movement political weight and a degree of protection, but said they were removing their support having been disappointed by the response of some of the protestors to Friday’s march.
Protestors saw some of their key sites attacked after the withdrawal of the Sadrists. Security forces retook a major highway close to Tahrir Square in Baghdad on Saturday, while unidentified armed groups attacked protestors in Habubi Square in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Sunday. At least five were killed during the weekend’s violence.
The response from protestors was defiant, however. Thousands of students marched past the Ministry of Education in Baghdad and on to Tahrir Square on Sunday. One young protestor, who had worn a necklace with Sadr’s image around his neck, proudly displayed a new pendant in the shape of Iraq.