Hundreds of Iraqi protesters have broken down the gate of the US embassy in Baghdad in an attempt to storm the compound – an attack Donald Trump has claimed was orchestrated by Iran.
Crowds had been gathering outside the entrance to the site for hours over controversial American airstrikes that killed more than two-dozen fighters from an Iran-backed militia over the weekend.
Gunfire has been heard and there are reports of tear gas, with Reuters news agency saying 12 people involved in the protests have been injured.
Several US soldiers were seen on the roof of the main building, but Reuters reported that US embassy staff and the US ambassador were not inside at the time.
They are understood to have been evacuated before the gate was broken down, with protesters having pelted the entrance with stones as they chanted: “No, no America! No, no Trump!”
Responding to the images on Twitter, President Trump said: “Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also said the US “will protect and defend Americans in Iraq” during a phone conversation with Iraqi leaders, adding that extra marines would be deployed.
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Iraqi special forces were sent to the scene in a bid to prevent the protesters entering the embassy and a man on a loudspeaker urged the crowd to desist, saying: “The message was delivered.”
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has also urged the protesters to leave and warned against any aggression towards foreign embassies and representatives.
Qais al Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior militia leaders are among the protesters who have gathered over the past few days.
Kataib Hezbollah flags have also been hung on the fence surrounding the building in a show of support, and graffiti has been sprayed on walls.
The Kataib Hezbollah is the militia that was targeted by the deadly US strikes in the west of Iraq on Sunday, which caused at least 25 deaths and injured another 55 people.
The protests began after Iraq condemned Washington for the strikes, which left American forces on alert for possible reprisal attacks.
Sky News’ foreign affairs editor Deborah Haynes said: “It’s revived the absolute hatred many Iraqis feel about having US forces on their soil at all.
“That’s in the wake of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, they remember all too well those days.
“US forces were actually welcomed back in 2014, by the government, to help in the fight against Islamic State (IS) and during that time they worked on the same side as these paramilitary groups, many backed by Iran, because they had a shared enemy in IS.”
The bombardment also prompted the Iraqi national security council to say it would reconsider working with the US-led coalition against Islamic State.
US, British and other foreign troops are only able to operate in Iraq with the permission of the government, and any review of the relationship could lead to permission being withdrawn.
Iran accused Washington of “an act of terrorism” over the attacks, even as US officials warned they were ready to launch more offensive action to defend American personnel and interests if required.
Concerns are growing that Iraq will become a new battleground for Iran and the US to wage a proxy war
In a statement from his office, Prime Minister Mahdi described the American attack on the Iraqi armed forces as an “unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences”.
But US officials said any violation of sovereignty had been carried out by the Iranian-backed militia when it allegedly targeted a base in the northern city of Kirkuk in a rocket attack that left a US contractor dead.
US assistant secretary of state David Schenker said the strikes, carried out by F-15 planes, were a message to Iran after months of “restraint”.
They hit three targets in Iraq and two in Syria.
US troops and Iranian-backed militias have largely avoided direct confrontation in Iraq over the past five years as they both fought a common enemy in Islamic State.
But a growing, global standoff between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear ambitions could see a flare up in hostilities on the ground in Iraq where both countries have a lot of interests, personnel and influence.
More than 5,000 US military personnel are based in Iraq as well as some 400 British forces.