Tensions rise after attacks as Iraq warns US ties at stake

Iraq’s government warned that its relations with the United States were at risk after deadly American air strikes against a pro-Iran group sparked anger on the streets, with protesters torching US flags.

Baghdad said it would summon the US ambassador while Washington responded by accusing Iraqi authorities of having failed to “protect” US interests.

At least 25 fighters were killed in Sunday night’s attacks, which saw US planes hit several bases belonging to the Hezbollah Brigades, one of the most radical factions of Hashed al-Shaabi, a Tehran-backed Iraqi paramilitary coalition.

The attacks came as Iraq is caught up in mounting tensions between its allies Tehran and Washington while it also grapples with huge street protests against corruption and Iran’s growing political influence in the country.

The strikes “killed 25 and wounded 51, including commanders and fighters, and the toll could yet rise,” said the Hashed, which holds major sway in Iraq.

Victims were still being pulled from the rubble of bases near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria, on Monday, it said.

The Hezbollah Brigades said they would hold a mass funeral ceremony on Tuesday in Baghdad near the high-security Green Zone, where the US embassy is located.

Iraq’s government, acting in a caretaker capacity following the resignation of prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi in the face of street protests, denounced the strikes and warned they could affect ties with Washington.

“American forces acted on their political priorities, not those of the Iraqis,” a statement said, adding that such strikes “violate the sovereignty of Iraq”.

The attacks “force Iraq to review its relations and its security, political and legal framework to protect its sovereignty”, the government added.

Embassy stormed

The warning came as demonstrators on Monday torched US flags in the Shiite-dominated southern cities of Basra and Najaf as well as in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, while lawmakers called for US troops to be booted out of Iraq.

And in Baghdad, several thousand supporters of the Hezbollah Brigades attacked the US embassy in anger at the US air strikes. The mob on Tuesday breached the US embassy walls, chanting “Death to America” and burning US flags, prompting the evacuation of the US ambassador from the building.

They held up posters calling for the embassy to be shut down and for parliament to order US forces to leave the country. They pulled security cameras off the wall as Iraqi security forces tried to keep them back.

It was the first time in years demonstrators have been able to reach the US embassy, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone.

US marines inside the compound fired tear gas and flash bangs to disperse the crowd, which had ignored calls over megaphones to back away from the embassy.

The demonstrators waved flags in support of the Hashed al-Shaabi, and many set up tents to begin an indefinite sit-in.

Among those at the protests were Iraq’s National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayyadh – who is also the head of the Hashed – and other top Hashed officials.

The United States has around 5,200 troops deployed across Iraq to train security forces and prevent any resurgence of the Islamic State jihadist group.

Iraq had long feared being caught in the middle of escalating tensions between its two main allies the United States and Iran, after Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran last year.

US defence officials have said that pro-Iran factions now pose a greater threat than IS because of repeated rocket attacks against US interests in Iraq.

Caught in the middle

In a phone call on Monday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “agreed that the Iranian regime and its proxies continue to be a destabilizing force in the region and that nations have a right to defend themselves in the face of these threats,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

Pompeo “underscored that attacks by the Iranian regime, or their proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive response, as demonstrated yesterday.”

Dozens of lawmakers called on the government to review an agreement allowing the deployment of 5,200 US soldiers in the country, saying the strikes amount to a violation that renders the pact obsolete.

US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker said the strikes were a “proportionate” response for the death Friday of a US civilian contractor in Kirkuk in a Hezbollah Brigades rocket attack.

“We don’t want an escalation here, we want a de-escalation,” he added however.

Abdel Mahdi said he had been forewarned by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper that the US would carry out the attacks.

“He told me the United States would strike the Hezbollah Brigades and I told him it would be a very dangerous act that could lead to an escalation,” Abdel Mahdi said.

The Hezbollah Brigades demanded the “withdrawal of the American enemy”, a call echoed by the pro-Iran groups Badr and Assaib Ahl al-Haq – whose leaders were recently hit with US sanctions.

“The American military presence has become a burden for the Iraqi state and a source of threat against our forces. It is therefore imperative for all of us to do everything to expel them by all legitimate means,” the Assaib Ahl al-Haq said.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the US had “shown its firm support for terrorism and its neglect for the independence and sovereignty of countries” by carrying out the attacks.

Russia called for restraint saying the “exchange of strikes” in Iraq were “unacceptable”.

 

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