January 02, 2020

The US government has deployed additional security forces to reinforce its embassy in Baghdad following the eruption of anti-US government demonstrations Dec. 31. The demonstrations, which were organized by Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), were in response to US airstrikes against five military targets and camps belonging to Kata'ib Hizballah or Hizballah Brigades (KH) Shi'a paramilitary group in Syria and Iraq Dec. 27. The airstrikes killed at least 25 KH fighters and injured 55 others. KH, which the US designated a terrorist organization in 2009, is now part of the PMUs. KH's spokesperson - Mohammad Muhi - had stated the group would set up tents outside the US Embassy and would continue staging demonstrations demanding the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. However, the Iraqi military announced Jan. 1 that it had secured the outer perimeter of the US Embassy and dismantled tents that were erected by the protesters. The US Embassy has suspended all consular operations until further notice. The US General Consulate in Erbil remains open for visa and American Citizen Services appointments. The US Embassy has also advised US citizens not to approach the embassy until the situation stabilizes.

Iraqi security forces remain deployed at entrances to the International Zone to prevent people from staging additional demonstrations and launching further attacks against the US Embassy. Additional protests, however, cannot be ruled out in the coming days as tensions between Washington and the Shi'a militias in Iraq remain heightened. The US Embassy - contrary to a number of reports from several local and international media reports - has not evacuated its staff from the diplomatic facility. US officials have stated that they have no plans to evacuate staff from the embassy. 


Origin of Recent Tensions

The recent series of incidents was set off by a rocket attack against the K-1 Airbase in Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which houses US troops, Dec. 27. The attack killed one US civilian defense contractor and wounded at least four US military personnel. US officials blamed KH for the rocket attack. KH is distinct from the Shi'a Hizballah militant group in Lebanon, but both groups receive substantial logistical and financial support from Iran. It is for this reason that US President Donald J. Trump has blamed Iran for orchestrating the protests outside the US Embassy in Baghdad.  

The US airstrikes also come following at least 11 rocket attacks against several military bases hosting US troops throughout the country, including Balad, Ayn al-Assad, and Qayyarah airbases, in the last several weeks. Mortar and rocket attacks have also struck areas in the International (Green) Zone in recent weeks. At least two rockets impacted near the security fence of Baghdad International Airport (BGW) Dec. 11. While no militia or militant group has claimed responsibility for these attacks, the US attributes them to Iran-backed Shi'a militia groups. A similar attack on Dec. 9, in which at least four projectiles impacted near BGW, injured five Iraqi security personnel. 

The US airstrikes against KH military targets have angered Iraqis of nearly all political persuasions. Caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi condemned the US airstrikes and declared an official three-day mourning period for the deceased Shi'a militia fighters. The condemnation of the airstrikes by Iraqi political leaders stems from the fact that Iraqi Shi'a militias - operating under the large umbrella of the PMUs - formed to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and are now essentially part of the Iraqi security establishment. The PMUs are also politically active and maintain a significant bloc within Iraq's Parliament. 

Senior and prominent PMU leaders, including Qais al-Khizali, Hadi al-Amiri, and Jamal Jafar Ibrahimi, participated in the demonstrations outside the US Embassy and urged their supporters to continue protesting. Ibrahimi, a former leader of KH also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, has vowed to avenge the 25 fighters' deaths, stating that his forces will retaliate against US forces in Iraq. KH and PMU supporters committed a number of acts of vandalism during the protests, including setting fires in the US Embassy's reception area, burning a guardhouse, smashing windows, and destroying security cameras. These actions prompted US forces guarding the embassy complex to fire tear gas to stop the demonstrators from entering the facility. 


Impact of Security Incidents at US Embassy

Heightened security measures are almost certain in the vicinity of the embassy in the coming days. Further demonstrations are possible near the embassy in Baghdad and outside US military bases and diplomatic facilities throughout Iraq. Additional confrontations are likely if additional demonstrations materialize or protesters attempt to enter the embassy or other prominent political buildings in the Green Zone. Disruptions to ground travel, general diplomatic services, and Iraqi government operations remain possible.


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