AH-64 Gunships And Extra Marines Race To U.S. Embassy In Iraq After Militant Mob Attacks (Updated)
Reinforcements are on the way to the Embassy, which has been under siege from a group of Iraqi militiamen, security forces personnel, and protestors.
U.S. Army AH-64 Apache gunships conducted a show of force and are now patrolling in the skies around the American Embassy in Iraq after a mob, led by Iranian-backed militiamen and including Iraqi security forces personnel, launched an attack on the compound, vandalizing outer portions of the facility and setting fires. The Embassy is on lockdown, but is not being evacuated at present, as the U.S. military sends Marines to reinforce military personnel and private security contractors already on scene. This attack follows U.S. airstrikes this past weekend against Kata'ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported militant group that is part of Iraq's state-sanctioned Popular Mobilizations Forces umbrella organization.
The attack began on Dec. 31, 2019, after the group marched into the sprawling Green Zone in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, a heavily guarded area housing Iraqi government facilities and various foreign embassies that only became open to the general public last year. Initial reports described the incident as a protest against the U.S. airstrikes on Kata'ib Hezbollah. Mourners of some of the individuals killed in those strikes were reportedly present initially. The U.S. government has blamed Kata'ib Hezbollah and other militias that have received assistance from Iran for a number of rocket attacks in recent years, including a barrage targeting the K-1 base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which killed a U.S. contractor on Dec. 27.
Video and pictures showing the mob setting fires, smashing windows, and writing graffiti on the exterior walls of the compound and attempting to get in have evoked images of Iranian militants seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taking Americans hostage in 1979, as well as the fatal terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. However, the U.S. State Department says that the main Embassy compound remains secure and that there have been no breaches.
The State Department and the Pentagon have reiterated the U.S. government's right to defend itself, if necessary, and have also called upon Iraqi authorities to meet their obligations to protect foreign diplomatic facilities.
"Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will," U.S. President Donald Trump wrote in a Tweet on Dec. 31. "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!"
As already noted, the U.S. military is moving to reinforce security at the Embassy, including sending the two AH-64s from Taji Air Base, just to the northwest of Baghdad. A contingent of approximately 100 Marines are also headed there now. These personnel are coming from the U.S. Marine Corps' dedicated crisis response unit – Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, or SPMAGTF-CR-CC – in neighboring Kuwait, which is forward-deployed there for exactly this type contingency. MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors assigned to SPMAGTF-CR-CC are flying the force straight to the Embassy compound. Other forces might follow.
The Marine Corps also has specialized Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams, or FAST Companies, on-call to provide enhanced security for diplomatic posts. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012, the U.S. military also instituted a new, global response plan, known as Operation New Normal, to better respond to these types of incidents in the future. The U.S. State Department maintains its own extensive security elements in Iraq, including a fleet of contractor-operated helicopters and aircraft, which could help evacuate the Embassy if necessary. You can read more about this and the crisis response assets available to the U.S. government in the Middle East in this past War Zone story.
Iraqi authorities have called for the mob to disperse, but it is unclear if Iraqi security forces are willing or able to take more active steps to defuse the situation. During recent protests in Iraq, demonstrators could not even get into the Green Zone without facing tear gas and much worse, which strongly indicates that Iraqi personnel at least stood aside so the mob could attack the Embassy in the first place. Pictures show that some members of the Iraqi military unit tasked with guarding the Green zone actively took part in the vandalism, as well.
"While we condemn the U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi military units, and acknowledge that symbolic funeral marches for the martyrs is a solemn act of remembrance, those taking part must stay away from diplomatic buildings and compounds," Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement. "Iraqi security forces will respond to any act of aggression or harassment against foreign embassies in Iraq, and those responsible will face the full force of the law."
Iraq has now deployed elements of the country's Counter-Terrorism Service, widely seen as the most capable and politically reliable of Iraq's security forces, to provide additional security at the American Embassy and disperse the mob.
In addition, whether or not Iran had a direct hand in planning or approving the attack, it's influence on the situation is clear. One of the attackers spray-painted "Qasem Soleimani is my leader" on an outer wall, referring to the head of the Quds Force, the extra-territorial arm of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Quds Force has been heavily involved in training and equipping Kata'ib Hezbollah and other elements of the Popular Mobilizations Forces. "Death to America" chants, a popular refrain during protests in Iran, though hardly limited to that country, have also been heard.
The immediate situation around the Embassy remains extremely fluid, but it does clearly reflect larger emerging tensions between the United States and Iraq. Pro-Iranian elements of the Iraqi government have been calling for the departure of American forces from Iraq on and off for months now and those same groups have renewed their calls from the U.S. military to leave the country. In the immediate aftermath of the American strikes, Iraq's National Security Council held an emergency meeting over the "sinful" U.S. actions and declared that they would review the country's security relationship with the United States.
More importantly, the U.S. airstrikes against Kata'ib Hezbollah provoked a broader outcry from Iraqis, many of whom saw the unilateral American military operation as a violation of the country's sovereignty. This is even more notable considering that average Iraqis have been protesting for months against corruption and sectarian influences, especially Iranian meddling, in their own government.
How the U.S. government responds to this incident at the Embassy, which still very much playing out, will likely set the tenor for how things go in the coming days and weeks. Trump has now said the United States will hold Iran responsible for this new provocation and his more hawkish supporters in Congress are also calling for additional action at least against Iranian-backed proxies.
Whatever happens, U.S.-Iraqi relations, and the future of the U.S. military's presence in the country, are definitely entering an increasingly dangerous and uncertain period.
We will continue to update this story as it develops.
UPDATE: 3:00pm EST—
The U.S. military has released images of a Marine Osprey delivering personnel to the Embassy compound, shot through an infrared camera on an aircraft orbiting above.
Kata'ib Hezbollah has also issued a statement framing the violence as a "fight against the embassy of evil and American conspiracy in Baghdad" and within the context of a broader regional Shia Islamic struggle. This includes the Alawites in Syria, a group to which Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad and many in his regime belong to.
UPDATE: 4:50pm EST—
President Trump has reiterated his threat toward Iran over the attack on the Embassy, but has also thanked Iraqi authorities for helping in the response.
UPDATE: 5:25pm EST—
CNN is reporting that the U.S. military is preparing to send a brigade-sized contingent, which could mean a force with between 4,000 and 5,000 personnel in total, made up primarily of soldiers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, to Iraq and potentially other areas in the Middle East. The 82nd does always have one of its brigades on a high alert posture, known as the "Division Ready Brigade," for rapid deployment anywhere in the world in response to a crisis.
Reuters is reporting that the actual deployment could be smaller than a full brigade. The 82nd does also keep smaller elements of the Division Ready Brigade on even higher alert status.
UPDATE: 6:30pm EST—
Fox News is reporting that approximately 500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division are headed to Kuwait to help bolster security in the region. Plane spotters using online flight tracking software have also spotted three U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III airlifters departing from Pope Airfield, part of Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, which is the 82nd's home base.
UPDATE: 7:40pm EST—
The U.S. military has now released a full video of Marines arriving at the Embassy earlier in the day.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says that approximately 750 personnel are deploying to the region in total in response to the attack in Baghdad, but it's unclear if this only refers to the troops from the 82nd Airborne Division that are heading to Kuwait now. He added that additional forces could arrive in the coming days, as well.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also echoed President Trump's earlier remarks and blamed Iran directly for "orchestrating" the attack. Previous reports had indicated that Iranian elements might have pushed Kata'ib Hezbollah and others to march on the Embassy.
The situation remains fluid with elements of the mob now encamped around the Embassy despite pleas from Iraqi authorities to disperse.
UPDATE: 8:40pm EST—
Secretary Pompeo has named the Iraqi actors that the U.S. government holds responsible for the Embassy attack and says did so at the direction of Iran. They are:
- Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, head of Kata'ib Hezbollah and Deputy Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee that oversees the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
- Qays al Khazali, a militant who fought against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and was detained by coalition forces between 2007 and 2010.
- Hadi al Amari, head of the Badr Brigades, another Iranian-backed militia group that is now part of the PMF.
- Faleh al-Fayyad, Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee and founder of the Ataa Movement political party.
Muhandis, in particular, does have strong connections to Iran's IRGC and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani personally and has spent considerable time living in Iran over the years. Hadi al Amari has similar ties, including having fought for Iran against Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.
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