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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The United States sees a direct “operational link” between the attack on its embassy in Iraq and government in Tehran, a top official said on Wednesday as members of Iran-backed Iraqi militias and their supporters withdrew from its perimeter on orders from their leaders.
The withdrawal ended a 24-hour siege of the embassy by anti-US protesters and followed the arrival overnight of more American troops at the compound.
"The attack on our embassy yesterday was orchestrated by Iran,” US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said in an interview with The National. Asked if the Trump administration saw a direct operational link between the attack on Tuesday and the government in Tehran, Mr Hook said, “Yes, we do.”
Mr Hook did not specify what evidence the US had to link Tehran to the attack but said “Iran organises, trains and equips Shia military proxies and we do not make a distinction between the Iranian regime and Iranian militias”.
“Any attack by an Iranian [trained and equipped] militia, the Iranian regime will be held accountable,” he said.
Mr Hook welcomed the decision of Iraqi militias to withdraw their supporters from the embassy’s vicinity as “a positive development”.
He described the situation as “relatively calm”, and said the US troop deployments to Baghdad and Iraqi security forces sent to the area would improve security at the embassy.
Mr Hook said he expected more sanctions to be imposed on Iran, describing its government as “isolated, running out of money and in a state of panicked aggression”.
The attack on the embassy and the withdrawal order from the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the umbrella body of the Iraqi militias, highlighted Iran’s reach in Iraq and threatened to raise tensions with the US to a level where violence could be difficult to control.
“We call on all of the crowds present near the US embassy to withdraw in deference to the order by the Iraqi government and to preserve the prestige of the state,” the PMF said, Russia Today television channel reported.
The Iraqi military later confirmed that the area around the embassy had been cleared.
"All protesters have withdrawn, tents dismantled, and other forms of demonstrating that accompanied these protests have ended and the Iraqi security forces have completely secured the embassy perimeter," it said in a statement.
Militia members and their supporters had remained camped outside the embassy despite tear gas and stun grenades fired at them earlier on Wednesday, reportedly by Iraqi security or US forces.
The PMF statement came after US President Donald Trump said Iran would be held “fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities”.
Despite the ease with which the crowd entered Baghdad's high-security Green Zone to attack the embassy on Tuesday, their actions appeared calibrated to avoid a full-scale assault on the compound or loss of life, in line with a strategy by Washington and Tehran to keep a check on any escalation between the two countries.
An Iraqi special forces fighter assigned to guard the Green Zone told AFP his units had no orders to intervene.
"If I had had orders to act, I could have fired and stopped the storming of the embassy," he said.
Some structures outside the embassy compound were set on fire and members of the crowd, some in military fatigues, again hurled stones at the embassy on Wednesday. The attack recalled the 1979 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran and the 2012 attack on the US mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
The US military released video of troops being flown in to the embassy after Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday that about 750 more soldiers would be sent immediately to Baghdad to secure the facility.
The embassy was attacked in retaliation to US air strikes on Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia positions in Iraq and Syria on Sunday, in which at least 25 of its members were killed and dozens more wounded.
The Pentagon said the raids were in response to a rocket attack on an American base in Kirkuk last week that killed an American contractor. It was the latest in a series of attacks on US targets in Iraq since the US intensified sanctions on Iran in mid-2019.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Twitter on Wednesday that he “strongly” condemned “the US's malice" in carrying out the raids on the militia.
Kataib Hezbollah is one of the militias most ideologically loyal to Iran in the PMF.
Although the paramilitary forces are nominally integrated into the Iraqi state, some of the militias often operate under orders from Iran, according to the US and many Iraqis.
Mr Trump said he expected Iraq to use its security forces to protect the US embassy compound and accused Iran of being behind the attack.
"Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible," Mr Trump said on Twitter.
A spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah said the militia's supporters intended to lay siege to the embassy until it was shut down and US diplomats left Iraq.
The US State Department said all personnel at the embassy were safe and there were no plans to evacuate the compound. Ambassador Matthew Tueller was said to be on his way back to Baghdad from holiday but had yet to arrive on Wednesday afternoon.
Updated: January 1, 2020 10:13 PM
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