Protesters withdraw from Iraq embassy after prime minister promises vote on removing U.S. forces

CBC News / YouTube Iraqi protesters storm U S Embassy 1577980217.jpg...
CBC News / YouTube

The multi-day siege of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has come to an end—for now—after Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi stated that he would require U.S. troops to leave Iraq, and militia leaders instructed those in and around the enormous embassy compound to withdraw. Orders to depart the embassy were issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of several Shiite militia groups including Kataib Hezbollah, the group whose sites were the subject of airstrikes from U.S. forces last Sunday.

Though one of the speakers on Wednesday had proclaimed the occupation of the courtyard and outer buildings of the embassy compound “eternal,” according to The Washington Post, just a day later the PMF issued its order to withdraw, and the tent city that had appeared within the Green Zone just as abruptly began to be disassembled as protesters and militia groups moved out with declarations of victory.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday evening, Donald Trump ordered another battalion of soldiers into the region following the embassy occupation, and “additional forces” are expected to be deployed. During the confrontation, helicopters helped evacuate remaining embassy staff and brought in at least 100 Marines to bolster the forces holding the core of the largest embassy compound in the world.

Early in the confrontation, Trump issued threats against the Iraqi government as well as Iran, but following a conversation with Abdul-Mahdi, Trump appeared to moderate his position. He thanked Abdul-Mahdi for “stepping up” to protect the embassy, and distinctly tamped down saber-rattling against Iran, saying “I like peace,” and noting that he did not see a conflict with Iran happening.

However, the Iraqi security forces that arrived at the site during and after the embassy takeover did not appear to interfere with the action of the protesters as they burned smaller buildings, spray-painted slogans onto the walls of the embassy, scaled the building to plant both militia and Iranian flags, and spent several hours trying to hammer their way through concrete and bulletproof glass to reach the inner compound. Those Iraqi security forces were still standing by as the order came from the militia groups to begin their withdrawal.

But the cause for the militia withdrawal appears to be more of a promise than a threat. Just days earlier, Abdul-Mahdi had managed to stave off a vote in parliament on ordering all U.S. forces out of Iraq. Now it appears he will allow that vote to happen. Soon.

According to the Associated Press, Donald Trump’s Christmas visit to Iraq renewed calls from the Iraqi legislator to order U.S. troops to leave, even before the recent series of U.S. strikes against bases in Iraq. During a less- than-three-hour visit, Trump did not meet with Abdul-Mahdi or other Iraqi leaders during, which was seen as a grave insult. At the time, Trump said he had no intention of withdrawing the 5,200 U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq.

Abdul-Mahdi, who was informed of the impending U.S. airstrikes only half an hour in advance, and who warned the U.S. that they would generate potential conflict, spoke on Monday evening just hours before the embassy invasion; according to Reuters, he described the airstrikes as “an unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences.” 

And the defining moment of the withdrawal doesn’t seem to have been any movement of forces from the U.S. or Iraq. As The New York Times reports, the real lever that sent the protesters packing their tents was a promise from Abdul-Mahdi that he would allow the legislation ordering the U.S. to depart from Iraq to move forward. The Atlantic notes that this legislation enjoys broad popular support, and is likely to be a major cause among other protest groups, including those who have occupied Tahrir Square in Baghdad for months.

The Iranian-backed militia demonstrated that it could organize thousands of supporters to penetrate the Green Zone, scale the walls of the U.S. embassy, stand their ground against circling helicopters and walls bristling with armed Marines, and hold their position until ordered to withdraw. The Iraqi government—itself composed of the same Shiite factions that Trump has condemned—responded to the incident not by using force to restrain or remove the protesters, but by agreeing to allow a vote ordering the removal of all U.S. forces from Iraq.

The militia groups may not have broken through to the inner compound of the embassy. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t score a huge victory.

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