Flashpoints

Trump puts Iran on notice: ‘They will be held fully responsible’

The Department of Defense released footage of some of the recent strikes against Hezbollah targets — three in Iraq and and two in Syria — it carried out near the end of December. (Tech. Sgt. Joseph Park /Air Force)

President Donald Trump on Tuesday warned Iran that it would be held accountable after protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in response to recent U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “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!”

The Iraqi protesters were reacting to the five airstrikes the U.S. conducted Sunday in Iraq and Syria, which took out 25 fighters linked to Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia in Iraq that is part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. Kataeb Hezbollah and PMF flags were seen carried by some protesters, according to multiple media reports.

The U.S. strikes followed a rocket attack Friday at an Iraqi coalition base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. civilian contractor and injured several American service members. The U.S. believes the Iraqi Shiite militia is the culprit behind Friday’s attack in Kirkuk, along with multiple other attacks targeting coalition installations in recent months. Iran has rejected accusations that it was involved in any recent attacks though.

According to The Associated Press, the Iraqi Shiite militia supporters on Tuesday knocked down the embassy’s primary door and protesters cried “Down, Down USA!” The reception area of the embassy was also set ablaze and protesters also destroyed the embassy’s gate, The Associated Press reports.

Meanwhile, U.S. service members were spotted on the roof of the embassy’s main building, according to The Associated Press.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in a statement Tuesday morning that appropriate security measures had been taken to safeguard personnel at the embassy, and noted additional troops would also be sent. U.S. Central Command told Military Times 100 Marines are reinforcing the embassy, and that two Apache attack helicopters from Taji, Iraq, are providing over watch.

The State Department said Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi and Iraqi President Barham Salih over the phone Tuesday. U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that both “took seriously their responsibility for and would guarantee the safety and security of U.S. personnel and property.”

Abdul-Mahdi, who the Wall Street Journal reported urged the U.S. to not follow through with the strikes on Sunday, issued a statement condemning the strikes, but also said Iraqi security forces would work to shut down violence at the embassy.

“While we condemn the US air strikes on Iraqi military units, and acknowledge that symbolic funeral marches for the martyrs is a solemn act of remembrance, those taking part must stay away from diplomatic buildings and compounds,” Iraq’s prime minister said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Iraqi security forces will respond to any act of aggression or harassment against foreign embassies in Iraq, and those responsible will face the full force of the law.”

Iraq’s Ministry of Defense reaffirmed the Iraqi government’s responsibility to protect embassies in Iraq, as it rejected reports suggesting that Iraq’s Minister of Defense Najah Al-Shammari was present at the U.S. Embassy during Tuesday’s attack.

“The Ministry of Defense denies some media reports about the arrival of the Minister of Defense to the American Embassy building, and that the Minister is currently at his workplace in the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense,” Iraq’s Ministry of Defense tweeted Tuesday. “The Ministry of Defense affirms the Iraqi government's responsibility to protect embassies and diplomatic missions inside Iraq.”

Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, an independent Iraqi organization that is closely aligned with the U.S. military, initially said that it was not responsible for defending any side involved. Rather, the organization said it was solely focused on counter-terrorism operations.

“The official spokesperson for the #counter-terrorism service denies that the unit is charged with the task of protecting any side, and that its duties are limited to combating terrorism only,” Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service tweeted.

But forces from Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service were later dispatched to the scene, according to Reuters. Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Military Times.

Multiple military and political leaders in Iraq have expressed their opposition to the U.S. air strikes and have claimed it violated Iraq’s sovereignty, the Wall Street Journal reports.

U.S. officials cautioned earlier this month that Iran should not be surprised if the U.S. chose to employ military force following provocations from Iran. For example, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers that “the ball is in the Iranian court” regarding their actions and the response it provokes from the U.S.

“Iran should not mistake the United States’ restraint for an unwillingness to respond with decisive military force should our forces or interests be attacked," Esper also told lawmakers this month.

An estimated 14,000 additional U.S. troops have been sent to the Middle East in the past six month to beef up forces amid escalating tensions with Iran.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, tweeted that she was monitoring the situation in Baghdad and that “violence must end.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who served in the Army as an infantry officer and deployed to Iraq, characterized the militia’s attack on the U.S. embassy as “reckless escalation” and echoed Trump’s sentiments that Iran would be held accountable.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, sought to distance the Trump administration from the Obama administration by citing the terrorist attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012. That attack took the lives of four Americans.

“He has put the world on notice — there will be no Benghazis on his watch,” Graham, who served in the Air Force, tweeted about Trump.

Military Times Senior Reporter Shawn Snow contributed to this report.

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