(Bloomberg) -- Dozens of Iraqi militiamen and their supporters stormed the U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad on Tuesday to protest deadly U.S. airstrikes against their Iranian-backed force, as President Donald Trump blamed Tehran.
The Pentagon dispatched two AH-64 Apache helicopters to fly over the embassy in a show of force, and about 100 Marines already in the region will be sent to the compound to reinforce its defenses, a U.S. official said.
“We have taken appropriate force protection actions to ensure the safety of American citizens, military personnel and diplomats in-country, and to ensure our right of self-defense,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement.
The anti-American protesters remained outside the embassy compound into the night in Baghdad, as some set up tents suggesting they planned an extended sit-in, Al Jazeera reported.
Earlier, guards lobbed tear gas and opened fire to quell the unrest, which was quickly contained, though dozens of protesters remained outside the compound. The U.S. ambassador had departed two days earlier, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. The actual embassy building wasn’t attacked, he said.
Trump said in a tweet that Iran “will be held fully responsible” for the embassy assault as well the killing of an American contractor in Iraq that precipitated Sunday’s U.S. airstrikes against the Kataieb Hezbollah militia bases.
Trump followed up later with a tweet urging Iraqis to rise up against Iranian influence. “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!” he said.
The White House said Trump spoke with Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi about regional security, and the president “emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq.”
The rare direct U.S. assault on an Iranian proxy on Sunday claimed the lives of 25 fighters and came at an especially tense time and held the potential for escalation. The U.S. and Iran are locked in a standoff over the Trump administration’s crippling economic offensive against Tehran -- meant to force it to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal Washington abandoned -- and the Islamic Republic’s suspected reprisals.
Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, condemned in a statement “the shocking insolence” of U.S. officials who he said sought to blame his country for protests by Iraqis outraged over Americans “slaughtering at least 25 Iraqi people.”
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The mob streamed into the embassy complex after climbing over blast walls and smashing down the outer gate and a guard post with hammers, according to televised footage. Black smoke billowed from tires the protesters set on fire. Dozens of protesters were hurt, some shot, others suffering from tear gas inhalation, according to a statement from the umbrella group to which Kataieb Hezbollah belongs.
Most of the protesters wore militia uniforms. Some hoisted militia flags as the crowd demanded that the embassy be shuttered and the ambassador expelled. “The embassy is closed by the order of the people,” someone scrawled on the blast walls. Other people spray-painted the word “resistance” on the barriers, and one protester was seen holding a headscarf with the image of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mahdi, the outgoing prime minister, reiterated his denunciation of the U.S. raid on Tuesday but called on protesters to leave the compound, threatening severe penalties for attacks on the mission.
(Updates with protesters staying into the night, Iranian statement starting in fourth paragraph)
--With assistance from Tony Capaccio, Mario Parker, Arsalan Shahla and Zaid Sabah.
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