(CNSNews.com) – U.S. troops reportedly fired teargas at pro-Iranian Iraqi militiamen outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Day, a day after militia members and supporters broke into the mission compound, prompting warnings from President Trump and a decision to deploy additional U.S. forces to the region.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meanwhile hit back at Trump’s threats to retaliate.
Addressing a meeting of nurses in Tehran on Wednesday, Khamenei noted that Trump has blamed Iran for the recent incidents in Baghdad and has pledged to respond.
“First of all, like hell you will,” the Mehr news agency quoted Khamenei as saying.
“Second, be reasonable – which you are not. People of this region hate the United States,” the ayatollah continued. “Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans all hate the U.S. and this hatred will eventually come out in some way.”
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted in response to the incidents at the embassy, “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”
Earlier, dozens of members of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias had stormed the compound, damaging a reception area and setting an unmanned guard post on fire. They claimed to be protesting U.S. F-15 strikes at the weekend on five bases – in western Iraq and eastern Syria – of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, an Iranian proxy in Iraq.
Those strikes, which killed at least 25 militiamen, were in retaliation for a rocket attack two days earlier on a military base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq used by U.S. forces. An American civilian contractor was killed in the rocket barrage.
On Wednesday, anti-U.S. elements gathered again near the embassy – in “large numbers,” according to the National Iraqi News Agency.
The Associated Press then reported that U.S. troops had fired tear gas to disperse the individuals gathered outside the compound.
“The U.S. Marines guarding the embassy fired tear gas as more crowds arrived and after the protesters lit a fire on the roof of the reception area on Wednesday,” AP reports. “Smoke rose from the building. Protesters also firebombed a second gate, setting another fire. U.S. soldiers were seen on the roof of the main embassy building.”
Kata’ib Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militia supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force – and a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization since 2009 – is part of the so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces,” an umbrella force formed in Iraq in 2015 to help government troops fight Sunni ISIS terrorists.
In his speech on Wednesday, Khamenei charged that the U.S. had attacked the bases to take revenge against Kata’ib Hezbollah for its part in defeating ISIS. (Even though the U.S. brought together and led a military coalition to destroy ISIS, Khamenei has long claimed – and did so again on Wednesday – that ISIS was in fact a “creation” of the United States.)
Khamenei also warned that while Iran was not looking for war, if anyone threatens it, “we will unhesitatingly confront and strike them.”
In response to Tuesday’s incident at the embassy, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the deployment to the Middle East of some 750 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
Speaking to CBS Evening News on Tuesday night, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the attack on the embassy compound “state-sponsored terror.”
“This is Iranian-backed terrorism that took place that threatened American interests,” he said.
“What you saw was Iranian-backed terrorists – many of them are individuals that have been designated terrorists by the United States and others – come into the American Embassy and posing a risk to American diplomats and personnel inside the embassy,” Pompeo told Fox News on Tuesday night.
“You saw President Trump direct a quick, decisive, prudent response by making sure that we had all the resources necessary to keep our people safe and to secure the compound as well,” he added. A U.S. Marine taskforce was sent from Kuwait to Baghdad on Tuesday to bolster security, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters overflew the area, launching warning flares.
When the militiamen and supporters first approached the embassy on Tuesday Iraqi security forces allowed them to do so, although Iraqi personnel were later deployed in the area.
Pompeo said he and Trump had spoken separately during the day to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, urging the Iraqis to fulfil “their obligation to protect our facility and our people.”
“We were happy to see them deploy forces there to do that. We continue to ask them to do everything it takes to ensure that that facility is protected, as they have an obligation to do.”
Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government, in turmoil after weeks of popular protests, has good relations with the Shi’ite regime in Tehran. At the same time it has invited U.S. forces – currently some 5,000-strong – to be stationed in the country, to train the Iraqi forces and ensure that the ISIS threat does not re-emerge.