- The US embassy in Baghdad was consumed by violent protests on Tuesday, catalyzed by recent airstrikes that killed dozens of fighters in an Iran-backed militia.
- The situation was emblematic of Trump’s disastrous year in the Middle East.
- Tensions with Iran, linked to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, fueled chaos throughout the region in 2019.
- “Really hard to overstate how badly Trump has bungled things in the Middle East. One of the only good things going — anti-Iran street protests in Iraq — have now morphed into anti-U.S. protests,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said in a tweet.
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Protesters enraged over recent US airstrikes swarmed the US embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, breaking into the compound and chanting “Death to America” before being pushed back by Iraqi security forces.
The chaotic situation, which unfolded on the final day of 2019, typified the disastrous year President Donald Trump has had in the Middle East.
The airstrikes, which took place on Sunday, killed dozens of fighters from Kataeb Hezbollah — an Iran-backed militia. They came after a rocket attack on Friday killed a US contractor and injured four US service members at a base in Kirkuk, which is in the northeastern part of the country.
The US has blamed Friday’s deadly attack on Kataeb Hezbollah, which is now seeking to see the US totally expelled from Iraq (and wants the US embassy to close). There are roughly 5,000 US troops in Iraq at present as part of the ongoing fight against ISIS.
Trump explicitly blamed Iran for the pandemonium at the embassy on Tuesday, which had US diplomats seeking refuge in a fortified safe room, the Washington Post reported.
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many,” Trump said in a tweet. “We strongly responded, and always will. 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!”
Trump later tweeted: “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!” The president did not expand on what he meant in the cryptic tweet.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday said the US is sending “additional forces to support our personnel at the Embassy.” The US is sending about 100 more Marines to the embassy amid the violent protests.
—Mustafa Salim (@Mustafa_salimb) December 31, 2019
—Liz Sly (@LizSly) December 31, 2019
The Trump administration is anxious to avoid an incident similar to the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 under the Obama administration, Politico reported.
Correspondingly, as the situation at the embassy in Baghdad unfolded, Trump on Tuesday also tweeted: “The Anti-Benghazi!”
In separate tweets, Trump said the embassy was “safe” before going on to threaten Iran.
“The US Embassy in Iraq is, & has been for hours, SAFE! Many of our great Warfighters, together with the most lethal military equipment in the world, was immediately rushed to the site,” Trump said.
The president then added: “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!”
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2019
‘Really hard to overstate how badly Trump has bungled things in the Middle East’
In the past few months, protesters have hit the streets in Iraq to express their discontent over Iran’s overwhelming influence in the country’s internal affairs. But the recent US airstrikes have seen the anti-Iran demonstrations transition into anti-America protests, and Iraqi leaders on Monday accused the US of violating its sovereignty. There are now fears that Iraq could become the site of a proxy war between the US and Iran.
Responding to the unsettling scenes at the embassy in Baghdad, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted: “Really hard to overstate how badly Trump has bungled things in the Middle East. One of the only good things going — anti-Iran street protests in Iraq — have now morphed into anti-US protests thanks to Trump’s mishandling of Iran policy.”
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, had a different take.
“The attack on the US embassy in Baghdad is straight from Iran’s playbook in 1979,” Bolton tweeted, alluding to the Iran hostage crisis. He added: “It’s a sign of Iranian control over Shia militia groups, not a sign of Iraqi anti-Americanism. We must protect our citizens from Iranian belligerence.”
Beyond the situation on Tuesday, Trump has had a calamitous year in the region, and much of this can be traced back to his decision in May 2018 to withdraw the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Tensions have steadily risen between the US and Iran since Trump unilaterally pulled the US from the landmark pact — a move that was condemned by key US allies.
The animosity reached a boiling point over the summer, with a series of incidents in the Persian Gulf region, including oil tanker attacks. The tensions raised fears of a possible war between the US and Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran has taken multiple steps away from the crumbling nuclear deal, increasing anxiety among European powers. The deal was designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran was in compliance with the deal for roughly a year after Trump withdrew from it.
The Trump administration has sought to squeeze Iran into sitting down and negotiating a tougher version of the 2015 nuclear deal with a slew of harsh economic sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign that has battered Iran’s economy. This strategy has shown few signs of success.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, slammed Trump’s policy toward Iran in a statement on Tuesday.
“While the Trump Administration has touted its maximum pressure campaign against Iran, the results so far have been more threats against international commerce, emboldened more violent proxy attacks across the Middle East, and now, the death of an American citizen in Iraq,” Menendez said.
On top of the standoff with Iran, Trump was bashed by politicians on both sides of the aisle in October after withdrawing US troops from northern Syria. The pullout paved the way for a Turkish military incursion, which targeted US-backed Kurdish forces who bore the brunt of the US-led campaign against ISIS. The Turkish invasion prompted a humanitarian crisis.
Trump is heading into 2020, an election year, with US-linked unrest on multiple fronts in the Middle East and no clear solution to the complex array of problems converging upon the region.