Iran Government Played Direct Role in Instigating U.S. Embassy Demonstration in Iraq, Intelligence Officials Say

The Iranian government has played a direct role in organizing the violent demonstration at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad distinct from the protests sweeping Iraq, an Iraqi intelligence official and senior Pentagon official told Newsweek.

An Iraqi intelligence official told Newsweek that the demonstrations were "not an Iraqi uprising."

"This is not short of military planning by the IRGC-Quds Force"—a reference to the elite expeditionary branch of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, commanded by Qassem Soleimani—the official said, speaking under the condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to discuss publicly. "They wage war not only against American soldiers and civilians, but most of all they wage war against the poor and helpless Iraqi citizens who are against the Shiite Islamic state of Iran," the official said.

A senior Pentagon official said the term "military operation" is "too strong" to describe what was happening at the embassy, and called the situation a "probing action," distinct from the kind of "organic uprising" that has engulfed the country since October 25 and under which Iraqis have burned Iranian diplomatic buildings in protest of the Islamic Republic's growing influence.

However, the official said, the protesters at the embassy "were directly influenced, orchestrated, prodded by the Iranians."

"It's important to understand that it may be 900 idiots, and 10 instigators," like a "mix" of average Iraqis and those mobilized by outside forces, the official said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi denied in a statement any role of Tehran in the demonstration, calling such accusations "a blatant insult to the people of Iraq," who he said regard the U.S. as "occupiers."

iraq, us, embassy, protests, baghdad
Members of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces militia wielding Kataib Hezbollah flags try to breach the outer wall of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the capital Baghdad, on December 31, during a rally to vent anger over weekend airstrikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

The episode is the latest conflict as the feud worsens across the region between the U.S. and Iran. Last Friday, the Islamic Republic's close ally Kataib Hezbollah launched an attack on the K-1 Air Base in northern Iraq's Kirkuk, killing a Defense Department contractor and wounding both U.S. and Iraqi personnel. In response, U.S. aircraft bombed several of the Shiite Muslim militia's positions in Iraq and Syria border area the following Sunday, killing scores of fighters, including what both the Iraqi intelligence and senior Pentagon official told Newsweek were up to three Iranian special forces personnel.

The unilateral strikes were condemned by top officials throughout the government and in influential circles in Iraq. A funeral procession held Monday for the slain Kataib Hezbollah fighters, who operate under the state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as Al-Hashed Al-Shaabi, marched toward the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone and managed to storm the gates and wreak havoc on the premises.

Their demands included the closure of the U.S. embassy in Iraq, a country long torn between the interests of Washington and Tehran and sick with the fatigue of foreign influence. Although Iraqis have begun to openly question Iran's presence, the recent airstrikes also have accelerated calls to establish a timeline for U.S. withdrawal.

"My prediction for 2019 was that U.S forces would remain in Iraq," Abbas Kadhim, director of the Atlantic Council's Iraq Initiative, told Newsweek. "I was right even though at the time there was momentum for a law being passed for the withdrawal of U.S. forces."

"My prediction for 2020 after what's happened is that it's next to impossible to keep U.S. forces in Iraq. I made the prediction before the surrounding of the U.S. embassy, and it's not just troops but the U.S. diplomatic presence as well," he added, noting, however, that this "is not inevitable," even if Washington and Tehran's own dispute appeared intractable.

Dramatic scenes of Monday's protests were reminiscent of the takeover of Washington's embassy in Tehran in 1979. The Islamic Revolution toppled a CIA-backed monarchy by storming the U.S. compound and holding diplomats hostage for 444 days. It sparked a decades-long rivalry further inflamed by Trump's decision last year to leave a multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran and impose heavy sanctions.

The situation only grew worse in 2019. In addition to attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. accused Iran directly of ordering rocket attacks against military facilities associated with the longstanding U.S. presence in Iraq, where the 2003 invasion paved the way for dueling Sunni and Shiite Muslim militias. The latter decisively won out with the 2017 defeat of the Islamic State militant group, known as ISIS, and groups with close Iranian ties such as Kataib Hezbollah enjoy considerable power.

us, military, helicopter, baghdad, iraq, embassy
U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters from 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 34th Combat Aviation Brigade, conduct overflights of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31. The helicopters launched flares as a show of presence while providing additional security and deterrence against protestors. Specialist Khalil Jenkins/U.S. Army/Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve

Still, in a country plagued by decades of conflict, fears grew that the U.S. embassy could erupt into the next warzone as Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement Tuesday that the United States was sending "additional forces to support our personnel at the Embassy." At least 120 Marines from 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, an infantry unit assigned to a special purpose task force under U.S. Central Command, arrived Tuesday in Baghdad.

"Our first priority is the safety and security of U.S. personnel," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. "U.S. personnel are secure and there has been no breach. There are no plans to evacuate Embassy Baghdad."

Opened in 2009 at a cost of roughly $736 million to construct, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad covers 104 acres, and is among the largest American embassies in both staff size and budget, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A senior Defense Department official told Newsweek Tuesday that the embassy is holding in "Force Protection Charlie," a military term for the force protection level that applies when either a terrorist or hostile act incident occurs near U.S. forces, or when intelligence is received that suggests a hostile act or terrorist attack against Defense Department personnel or facilities could occur.

The State Department spokesperson denied that U.S. ambassador to Iraq Matt Tueller had been evacuated and instead asserted that he "has been on previously scheduled personal travel for over a week" and will be "returning to the Embassy."

"The Iranian backed demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy should not be confused with the Iraqi protestors who have been in the streets since October to decry the corruption exported to Iraq by the Iranian regime," the spokesperson continued. "We have made clear the United States will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq."

Kadhim, however, said that "one can't write this off as a pro-Iran action," though "they are the biggest beneficiaries." He said he believed the rocket attack on the K-1 Air Base was "a trap for the U.S., the U.S. swallowed the bait, the U.S. hit back instead of accepting a black eye."

"In the long-term and on the ground, they bombed their own interests," Kadhim said. "I don't know who the hell advised the U.S. government and told them to bomb the Hashed and kill them, but this person should be fired."

"The U.S. suffering of losing Iraq is not even comparable to Iraq's suffering from the loss of strong relations with the U.S.," he added. "Iraq is not lost yet, but it can be."

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