A top U.S. commander said Monday that mortars were used in an attack on the American embassy in Baghdad that injured one person and caused some material damage the previous night, not katyusha rockets as was initially reported by staffers and a statement from the military.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, a top U.S. commander for the Middle East, told reporters travelling with him that the mortar attack started a fire that was put out. He said no U.S. military personnel were injured, but one U.S. national had a minor injury but returned to work.
Two staff members at the embassy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said initially that rockets slammed into a restaurant inside the American compound late Sunday. A military statement had said five rockets hit inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the embassy sits.
In a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed “outrage” and blamed the attack on “Iran’s armed groups,” according to a statement from State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagusand. Pompeo said the attack was an attempt to divert attention from the suppression of anti-government protesters in Iraq, the statement added.
A statement from Abdul-Mahdi’s office said Pompeo had called the premier and the two discussed measures to strengthen Iraqi forces responsible for protecting diplomatic missions and procedures to prevent similar attack.
Ortagus’ statement said Pompeo reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the Iraqi people and a “willingness to discuss the scope of our forces in Iraq over time,” the statement said.
The attack late Sunday was the third to target the U.S. Embassy this month, and the perpetrators were not immediately known. Attackers used katyusha rockets in the previous strikes and caused no injuries.
There was no claim of responsibility for any of the attacks. But the U.S. has accused Iran-backed militias of targeting U.S. interests by attacking military bases housing Americans and diplomatic missions.
The U.S. Embassy is within the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone and has been a flashpoint amid wider regional tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which have played out inside Iraq in recent weeks. Iraqi supporters of an Iran-backed militia stormed the embassy compound Dec. 31, smashing the main door and setting fire to the reception area.
A U.S. drone strike Jan. 3 that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soliemani near Baghdad’s airport prompted Iraqi lawmakers to pass a non-binding resolution calling for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. The subject has monopolized Iraqi politics.
Violence between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters also continued to seethe overnight, with one protester shot dead in a crackdown in the country’s south. Unrest also continued in the capital, with new clashes erupting Monday near the central Khilani and Wathba squares, where security forces fired tear gas and live bullets to disperse crowds.
Embassies for 16 Western countries, including the U.S., issued a joint statement condemning the “excessive and lethal use of force” by Iraqi security forces and armed groups over the past three days against “peaceful protesters, including in Baghdad, Nasiriyah and Basra.”
The statement called on the government to investigate all reported deaths of protesters since Oct. 1, when the unrest began.
At least 22 protesters were wounded in the latest clashes, five due to live fire, security and medical officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Security forces also chased after demonstrators and beat them.
A member of the security forces overpowered a female anti-government protester, dragged her by the hair and pinned her down outside Baghdad’s municipality building. The incident, captured by an Associated Press photographer, was a rare occurrence in the largely male-dominated front lines of the demonstrations.
The security personnel conducted a search of the female protester and tore off a protective face mask she was wearing as a witness threw stones.
Iraq has been roiled by over four months of demonstrations over government corruption, high unemployment and Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Security forces have killed at least 500 protesters. The country is also facing a political clash over naming the next prime minister, after Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned.
In the south, a protester was killed amid a pre-dawn crackdown by security forces on a protest camp in the city of Nasiriyah, an activist and a medical official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Police fired live rounds to disperse crowds from a central square in Nasiriyah where protesters were staging a sit-in, prompting demonstrators to flee. The encampment site was later burned. It was not immediately clear whether security forces or unknown groups had torched it. The city has been a centre of unrest since the protests began.