(CNN)Protesters attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, scaling the walls and forcing the gates, but failing to breach the compound as hundreds demonstrated against American airstrikes on an Iran-backed militia group in Iraq.
US officials and lawmakers placed blame for the protests squarely on Iran, with President Donald Trump tweeting that Tehran "will be held fully responsible.
"Two sources at the demonstration witnessed the attempt to break into the premises, adding that security personnel fired tear gas to repel the attack. Video footage shows demonstrators smashing windows, burning items outside and throwing rocks over the walls.
The embassy, in Baghdad's green zone, has been put under lockdown, but protesters have not been able to breach the compound, an embassy spokesperson told CNN. US ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller has been on vacation for more than a week, but a State Department spokesperson said Tueller is returning to the embassy.
The attacks are a response to US airstrikes against an Iran-backed militia that formally sits under the control of Iraq's prime minister. The airstrikes have caused tension with Baghdad, where officials accused the US of attacking without sufficient evidence, violating Iraqi sovereignty and threatening the country's security.
Both sides signaled Tuesday that the situation could escalate, while US officials stressed their readiness to protect American personnel, flying Apache helicopters over the embassy in a show of force and announcing that Marine reinforcements will be sent to bolster security at the embassy.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham cast the protests as an Iranian "escalation," saying that "it will be the President's choice how and when we respond."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iran-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, told CNN that the embassy protests were only a "first step."
"The American administration should understand the following: the first step was to protest near the American embassy, we are waiting their reactions to determine the second step," Mohamad Mouhiye said, calling for the US to shut down the embassy and withdraw from Iraq.
"First, close the doors of the evil embassy, which we consider a spy building and an operations room to administer and sabotage Iraq's wellbeing," Mouhiye said. "We also call on the US to withdraw their military forces which are in Iraq illegally," he said.
"This protest was a stand against US political dominance," he said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper released a statement announcing the deployment of the additional Marines and said the Pentagon is working closely with the State Department to ensure the safety of the embassy and staff in Baghdad. He also reminded Iraq of its obligations under international law.
"We have taken appropriate force protection actions to ensure the safety of American citizens, military personnel and diplomats in country, and to ensure our right of self-defense," Esper said. "As in all countries, we rely on host nation forces to assist in the protection of our personnel in country, and we call on the Government of Iraq to fulfill its international responsibilities to do so.
"It is not clear how many people are inside the embassy, but it is the US' largest diplomatic mission in the world, with around 16,000 staff. The compound covers around 100 acres, around the same size as the Vatican City.The pro-Iranian demonstrators were mostly from Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a coalition of predominantly Shiite militias. Formed in 2014 to fight ISIS, the PMU were recognized under a 2016 Iraqi law as an independent military force that answers directly to the prime minister.
Despite the Iraqi law, most observers see many of those groups, including Kataib Hezbollah, as maintaining strong links to Iran and its security forces, from which they receive funding and other support, as well as some direction.
Three leaders of powerful militia groups were also seen at the protest, including Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The US carried out five airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on Sunday on facilities controlled by Kataib Hezbollah, killing at least 25 people and wounding 51, in the first significant US military response to weeks of deadly rocket attacks by the Iran-backed group on US-Iraqi targets.
US officials said the strikes were carried out with F-15 Strike Eagle fighter planes and targeted weapons storage facilities and command and control locations used by Kataib Hezbollah. The Pentagon said the locations had been used "to plan and execute attacks" on joint US-Iraq forces.
The strikes and ensuing protests come at a time of high tensions between the US and Iran, and have stoked fears of a new proxy war in the Middle East.
Washington has tightened the economic squeeze on Tehran this year through its "maximum pressure" campaign, while Iran has responded with what it calls for "maximum resistance," including reducing its compliance to the international nuclear deal.
The Trump administration pulled the US out of that deal in May 2018, sparking a campaign of provocation between the two nations that has included attacks by Iran or its proxies on US allies and oil infrastructure and shipping.
Some on Twitter are calling this Trump's own "Benghazi" situation. If that's the case, ain't that ironic?
And here's a MAJOR update
Baghdad (AP) — Iraqi TV and three Iraqi officials said Friday that Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, has been killed in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport.
The officials said the strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Their deaths are a potential turning point in the Middle East and are expected to draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the Middle East against Israel and American interests.
The PMF blamed the United States for an attack at Baghdad International Airport Friday.
There was no immediate comment from the U.S. or Iran.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
An official with an Iran-backed paramilitary force said Friday that seven people were killed by a missile fired at Baghdad International Airport, blaming the United States.
The official with the group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces said the dead included its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.
A security official confirmed that seven people were killed in the attack on the airport, describing it as an airstrike. Earlier, Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which releases information regarding Iraqi security, said Katyusha rockets landed near the airport’s cargo hall, killing several people and setting two cars on fire.
It was not immediately clear who fired the missile or rockets or who was targeted. There was no immediate comment from the U.S.
The security official said the bodies of those killed in the airport attack Friday were burned and difficult to identify. The official added that Reda may have been at the airport to pick up a group of “high-level” visitors who had arrived from a neighboring country. He declined to provide more information.
The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack which ended Wednesday prompted President Donald Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.
U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the rocket attack on Dec. 27 that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.
He said the Iraqi government has fallen short of its obligation to defend its American partner in the attack on the U.S. embassy.
The developments also represent a major downturn in Iraq-U.S. relations that could further undermine U.S. influence in the region and American troops in Iraq and weaken Washington’s hand in its pressure campaign against Iran.
Oh holy hell! This is going to get REAL ugly.