BAGHDAD – The siege by supporters of an Iranian-backed militia at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad ended Wednesday after the militia ordered them to withdraw, bringing relief to the diplomats trapped inside and averting a potential showdown between the United States and Iran.
Supporters of the Kataib Hezbollah militia who had spent the night camped outside the embassy dismantled their tents and marched out of the area, saying they would instead continue to press for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in the nation’s parliament.
“Yay! We burned them!” they chanted as they headed away from the embassy, a reference to the fires set by the demonstrators that burned two embassy reception areas Tuesday.
The retreat signaled an end to a crisis in which thousands of angry militia supporters attempted to storm the embassy Tuesday, protesting the deaths of 25 militia members in U.S. airstrikes Sunday. Those strikes were conducted in retaliation for the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack the U.S. military blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.
The Pentagon had dispatched additional troop reinforcements to the region as President Donald Trump tweeted that he blamed Iran for the assault on the embassy, raising fears of an escalating conflict.
Perhaps defusing the situation, Trump stepped back on Tuesday from his bellicose rhetoric earlier in the day, saying he did not want a war with Iran.
Asked at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida on New Year’s Eve whether he feared the crisis in Iraq would push the United States into war with Iran, Trump told reporters he hoped not. “Do I want to? No, I want to have peace. I like peace,” he said. “And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”
Trump spoke Tuesday as fresh U.S. troop reinforcements headed to the region. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Immediate Response Force were en route to the Middle East, with additional soldiers expected to follow in the coming days.
The U.S. military had earlier released photographs showing a contingent of about 100 Marines landing in the grounds of the embassy compound to reinforce the existing protection force there.
The White House referred a request for comment Wednesday to the National Security Council, which did not immediately respond. But Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, lauded the president’s actions.
Calling the militia supporters “terrorists,” Hook told CNN that Trump “took very decisive action and put in place the necessary force protections and for our people, our diplomats and our embassy. And it was the right thing to do, and today the situation is much better.”
Later in the day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that he had spoken with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, “who agreed that #Iraq would continue to uphold its responsibility to keep U.S. personnel secure and would move the Iran-backed attackers away from @USEmbBaghdad.” Pompeo added that the United States will “continue cooperation” with Iraq “to hold #Iran and its proxies responsible.”
The departure of the demonstrators was probably most welcomed by the diplomats and embassy staffers who had been holed up in safe rooms for more than 24 hours.
“Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief,” said Maj. Charlie Dietz, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad. “A situation that could have easily escalated out of control was handled with tactical restraint, and everyone was able to walk away.”
One embassy official said he most looked forward to the opportunity to catch up on sleep. Another said his first move was to step outside to smoke his first cigarette in more than a day.
The day had begun with renewed clashes along the high wall guarding the fortified embassy, with demonstrators hurling molotov cocktails into the compound and guards inside responding with tear gas.
The clashes eased after the senior leadership of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or al-Hashd al-Shaabi – the umbrella organization that commands dozens of Shiite militias – ordered a complete withdrawal of all the demonstrators. The order was issued, a statement said, “out of respect” for an instruction issued the previous day by the Iraqi government.
Several hundred supporters of Kataib Hezbollah and another Iranian-backed group, Harakat al-Nujaba, initially refused to comply, saying they took orders only from their own leaders.
A top Kataib Hezbollah official then showed up outside the embassy and instructed the remaining demonstrators to leave. “You have won a victory,” said Mohammed Mohyee, the group’s political spokesman, addressing the crowd through a loudspeaker. “You have delivered your message. We will take our fight to expel U.S. troops from our land to parliament, and if we don’t succeed, we will return.”
The loyalists obeyed, abandoning what could have turned into a long siege intended to pressure the United States to pull its troops and diplomats out of Iraq. They said they would relocate to an area on the opposite bank of the Tigris River and establish a protest camp there. The area is outside the fortified Green Zone, where the embassy is located, and a camp there would not pose a direct threat to the facility.
Although the immediate sense of crisis appeared to have passed, the conclusion of the siege did not herald a solution to the wider problem of the growing friction in Iraq between the United States and Iran. There is a force of about 5,000 American troops in Iraq to help Iraqi security forces in the fight against the Islamic State. Iran, meanwhile, wields vast military influence in Iraq through a network of militias that, although nominally under the authority of Iraqi security forces, owe allegiance to Iran.
It was not immediately clear why Kataib Hezbollah had called off the siege. The order to do so appeared to have been unexpected: Shortly before it was issued, a large truck had arrived outside the embassy carrying tents, food and other supplies for those camping outside.
A senior Kataib Hezbollah official said the group agreed to end the protest after receiving guarantees from Mahdi, the prime minister, that the issue of the U.S. troop presence would be raised in parliament.
Representatives of the prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Past efforts by pro-Iranian members of parliament to pass a law calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops have failed to muster a majority.
“I don’t think there is a good prospect at this time for the Iraqi government to cancel all security arrangements with foreign forces,” said Sajad Jiyad, who heads the Bayan Center think tank in Baghdad. “And if they did, it would be very risky for Iraq.”
Video: On Jan. 1, the siege on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad appeared to come to an end after supporters of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia retreated.(The Washington Post/The Washington Post)