Pompeo urges Iraq to uphold sovereignty after ‘assaults by Iran’ on US targets

Secretary of state calls on Iraqi government to better protect American facilities as protests against Baghdad and US troops continue and fears of a wider conflict smolder

Iraqi security forces try to disperse anti-government protesters during clashes in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP/Hadi Mizban)
Iraqi security forces try to disperse anti-government protesters during clashes in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

AFP — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday urged Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi to uphold his country’s sovereignty in the face of attacks from Iran on US facilities in Iraq.

Pompeo “expressed his outrage at the continued assaults by Iran’s armed groups against US facilities in Iraq, including yesterday’s rocket attacks against our Embassy, which resulted in one injury,” the State Department said in a statement.

The statement said that “these attacks demonstrate a wanton disregard for Iraqi sovereignty and a failure to rein in these dangerous armed groups.”

The attack was “an attempt to distract Iraqi and international attention away from the brutal suppression of peaceful Iraqi protesters by Iran and its proxies,” the statement said.

Pompeo said on Twitter that “the government of #Iraq must take immediate steps to protect our diplomatic facilities as required by international law.”

On Sunday evening, three rockets slammed into the US embassy, wounding one person, according to a senior Iraqi official and US diplomatic sources.

No details were available on whether the casualty was a US national or an Iraqi member of staff.

Iraq’s foreign ministry earlier said the attack would not impact US-Iraqi relations, although Abdel Mahdi and parliament speaker Mohammed Halbusi said it risked dragging their homeland into war.

The attack on the embassy sparked renewed fears that Iraq could be dragged into another armed conflict as its capital and Shiite-majority south are rocked by the country’s largest and deadliest grassroots movement in decades.

Youth-led rallies erupted on October 1 last year over corruption, joblessness and poor services but were met with violence that has since left nearly 480 people dead — most of them protesters.

Security forces and unidentified gunmen this week tried to clamp down on rallies again, and more than 20 protesters have lost their lives.

On Monday, 16 ambassadors based in Iraq issued a joint statement condemning the “excessive and lethal use of force” and demanding the government allow citizens to protest freely in Baghdad and the south.

US Marines guard the Baghdad Embassy Compound in Iraq, Jan. 5, 2020. (US Marine Corps/Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot)

“Despite assurances by the government, security forces and armed groups continue to use live fire in these locations, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries of civilians, while some protesters face intimidation and abduction,” said the statement. It was signed by the US, UK, France, Germany and a dozen other countries.

Anti-government activists feared a crackdown this week after losing the support of powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who backed the rallies when they first erupted then abruptly changed course Friday after holding his own rally.

University students have carried the torch, gathering in the thousands to insist on their political independence.

“When we first came out to protest and hold sit-ins, we didn’t commit to the narrative of the Sadrist movement or any other political party,” said Zainab Mohammad, a university student in the shrine city of Karbala.

“We came out on our own, and we will continue until our demands our met,” she said.

Protesters are demanding snap elections, an independent successor to prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi — who has resigned but remains in a caretaker role — and the prosecution of those implicated in corruption or recent bloodshed.

Early on Monday, unidentified gunmen stormed a protest camp in the flashpoint southern city of Nasiriyah and torched tents, an AFP correspondent there said.

Thousands of Iraqis, waving national flags, take to the streets in central Baghdad on January 24, 2020 to demand the ouster of US troops from the country (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

The attackers fired on activists who had been sleeping there, killing one and wounding four others, a medic said.

But hours later, determined protesters had erected new tents and even built a one-room cement installation, signalling their determination to stay put.

In the oil-rich but impoverished port city of Basra, student protesters re-erected tents dismantled by authorities over the weekend, AFP’s reporter said.

The main protest camp in the Shiite holy city of Najaf was also burned down overnight by unidentified gunmen, but protesters jumped into action Monday morning, blocking roads with burning tires.

In the early afternoon, a funeral march made its way through the city to mourn the young man killed earlier in the day in Nasiriyah, identified as 14-year-old Ali Zuweir.

In this May 15, 2019 file photo, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi speaks to the media during a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Turkey (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

Relatives carried the boy’s coffin through Najaf, a favored burial place for Iraqi Shiites, holding up his portrait and weeping loudly.

Sadr’s march on Friday saw thousands turn out to demand American troops leave the country, after the US used Iraqi airspace to carry out a drone strike on top Iranian and Iraqi officials on January 3.

Outraged, Iraq’s parliament voted on January 5 in favor of ousting all foreign forces, including the 5,200 US troops deployed in Iraq.

Pro-Iran factions in Iraq, particularly those tied to the Hashed al-Shaabi military force, had long lobbied for the ouster of American forces.

On Monday, top Hashed commander Qais al-Khazali said any candidate being considered to replace Abdel Mahdi must pledge to execute parliament’s vote and oust foreign troops.

Other conditions for the new premier included holding snap parliamentary elections by the end of the year and implementing a landmark development deal with China.

Washington has blamed hardline Hashed factions, including Khazali’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq for rocket attacks on the US embassy and American troops in recent months.

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