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US sends more troops to Iraq as Iran tensions spike

US troops deployed to the Iraqi embassy in Baghdad [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 January, 2020

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The US has deployed 750 troops to the Middle East following the storming of its Baghdad embassy by protesters as Iranian leader Ali Khamenei condemned American 'wickedness'.
Washington will send hundreds more troops to the Middle East as tensions with Iran mounted, with Tehran-linked militiamen and supporters surrounding the US embassy in Baghdad.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement that about 750 troops would be sent to the region, after supporters of an Iran-linked Iraqi militia attacks the American embassy in Baghdad in Tuesday.

This followed US airstrikes on Tehran-aligned militia targets in Syria and Iraq and Sunday.

"This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today," Esper said.

Among those due to be deployed in the coming days is the rapid response unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, according to Al Jazeera.

US marines stationed in Kuwait would also be deployed to Iraq, the broadcaster reported, after pro-Iran protesters laid seige to the American embassy in Baghdad and set fire to a guard post on the outer perimiter of the compound.

US troops fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse pro-Iran protesters who were gathered for a second day outside the American Embassy compound in Baghdad.

Dozens of Iran-allied militiamen and their supporters had camped out at the gates of the embassy in Baghdad overnight, a day after they broke into the compound.

They trashed a reception area and smashing windows in one of the worst attacks on a US diplomatic mission in years.

The militiamen were protesting deadly U.S. airstrikes that targeted the Hezbollah Brigades, an Iran-backed militia, over the weekend, killing 25 fighters.

The US said those strikes were in response to a rocket attack on an Iraqi army base that killed a US contractor.

Robert Ford, a retired US diplomat who served five years in Baghdad and then became ambassador in Syria, said Iran's allies in the Iraqi parliament may be able to harness any surge in anger among Iraqis toward Washington to force American troops to leave the country.

Ford said Trump miscalculated by approving Sunday's airstrikes, which drew a public rebuke from the Iraqi government and triggered Tuesday's embassy attack.

"The Americans fell into the Iranian trap," Ford said, with airstrikes that turned some Iraqi anger toward the US and away from Iran and the increasingly unpopular Iranian-backed Shia militias.

The violence comes as Iran and Iraq faced unprecedented mass protests in recent months and after heavy US sanctions on Iran that have severely affected its economy and raised tensions across the region.

In Iraq, the protesters have been angered at their own government's corruption and economic mismanagement, as well as its close ties to Tehran.

Read also: Protests bring Iraq’s muhasasa system to its knees

President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the attack on the embassy and said Baghdad had been notified it must protect its diplomats and interests in Iraq.

Iran condemns US ‘wickedness’

Iran has denied any involvement in the attack on the embassy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted by state media on Tuesday as warning the US against any "miscalculation" in the worsening standoff.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticised the US airstrikes on the Iran-backed Iraqi militia on Sunday. He accused the Washington of taking revenge on Iran for the defeat of the Islamic State group, which he said was an American creation.

He went on to condemn US "wickedness," according to the remarks carried by the semi-official ISNA news agency.

Khamenei also issued a direct threat to the US on Wednesday.

The US and Iran have vied for influence over Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, cooperating on occasions as well as competing with each other.

Iran has close ties to Iraq's Shia majority and many of its major political factions, and its influence has steadily grown since then.

Iran helped to mobilise tens of thousands of mostly Shia militiamen to battle the Islamic State group when it stormed across northern and western Iraq in 2014 as the armed forces collapsed.

In the subsequent campaign against the extremists, the US and Iran both provided vital aid to Iraqi forces, who eventually declared victory in December 2017.

The pro-Iranian militias' political influence in Iraq has risen in recent years, and their allies dominate the parliament and the government.

That has made them the target of mass protests since October that are unrelated to the attack on the embassy.

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