Donald Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad as he said he expected Iraq to “use its forces” to intervene.
“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” he wrote on Twitter.
“The US Embassy in Iraq is, & has been for hours, SAFE! Many of our great Warfighters, together with the most lethal military equipment in the world, was immediately rushed to the site.”
Mr Trump intensified pressure on the Iraqi authorities who had been powerless to prevent hundreds of demonstrators breaching the outer wall of the embassy compound in the heavily fortified green zone.
He pressed the case for action in a call to Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahd, urging him to protect US personnel and property.
Asked later in the day about the possibility of tensions spiraling into a war with Iran, Mr Trump told reporters: “Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”
Chanting “death to America”, the protesters set fire to a sentry box, pulled security cameras away from walls and hurled a barrage of missiles including Molotov cocktails.
At one point the mob, which was protesting against US airstrikes on an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq on Sunday, used a drainpipe in an attempt to smash an embassy window.
US troops tried to disperse the crowd firing warning shots before using teargas and stun grenades. At least 62 people were reported to have been injured.
Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 31 December 2019
Amid mounting tension, the US announced it would be deploying additional marines to increase security. Two Apache helicopters flew over the compound in a show of force.
Matt Tueller, the US ambassador in Iraq, was not in the embassy at the time, but will be returning to join staff in the compound, the US State Department said.
Under pressure from Mr Trump to protect US personnel, Mr Mahdi had deployed special forces at the main gate in an attempt to prevent hundreds of protesters forcing their way in.
Some of the crowd did withdraw, while others pitched tents, paving the way for a siege, which a spokesman for the militant group said would remain until US diplomats leave the country.
As the violence unfolded in Iraq, Mr Trump intensified pressure on both Iraq and Iran with a series of tweets.
“We expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” Mr Trump tweeted, saying Iran “will be held fully responsible” for the unrest.
Mr Trump was unapologetic for the military action which killed at least 25 fighters from Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah, a militant group with the US holds responsible for the death of an American contractor.
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” the US president wrote.
Supporters of Kataeb Hezbollah were prominent among the demonstrators in Baghdad, with the group’s flags hanging on the fence surrounding the embassy.
The Iraqi government, which is already facing a wave of protests across the country, has found itself caught in the crossfire between Tehran and Washington.
Mr Mahdi condemned the weekend’s airstrikes, but Mr Trump remained unrepentant as he urged the country to stand up to Iran
“To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!” the president tweeted.
In response, Tehran accused the US of “audacity” in blaming Iran for the demonstrations.
“The surprising audacity of American officials is so much that after killing at least 25… and violating the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, that now… they attribute the Iraqi people’s protest against their cruel acts to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.
In the US, Republican hawks praised Mr Trump’s tough response to the attack on the embassy.
“He has put the world on notice – there will be no Benghazi’s on his watch,” tweeted Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally and GOP senator from South Carolina.
Newt Gingrich called for even tougher action.
“The United States should respond to Iran in Iran. The Iranian dictatorship doesn’t care how many of its allies we hit in Iraq. We have to go after the heart of the enemy and make them pay decisively.”