Hashd al Shaabi militiamen and their supporters withdraw from US embassy perimeter in Baghdad, a day after they stormed the premises, forcing Washington to dispatch extra troops and threaten reprisals against Iran.
Pro-Iran demonstrators left the besieged US embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday after the Hashd al Shaabi militia ordered them to withdraw a day after their dramatic incursion.
"You delivered your message," the Hashd said in a statement addressed to the crowds encircling the embassy since Tuesday in outrage over deadly American air strikes on a pro-Iran Hashd faction on the weekend that killed 25 of their members.
AFP news agency's photographer saw protesters dismantling their tents and leaving the Green Zone.
"We burned them!" they said, streaming back out of checkpoints they had breezed through on Tuesday.
Kataeb Hezbollah, the group targeted in the US raids, initially told AFP it would stay at the embassy.
But the group's spokesman Mohammad Mohyeddin later said it had decided to abide by the Hashd's order.
"We scored a huge win: we arrived at the US embassy, which no one had done before," he told AFP.
"Now, the ball is in parliament's court," Mohyeddin added, referring to lawmakers' efforts to revoke the legal cover for 5,200 US troops to deploy in Iraq.
"All protesters have withdrawn, tents dismantled, and other forms of demonstrating that accompanied these protests have ended and the Iraqi security forces have completely secured the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," Iraqi military said in a statement.
Protests after US strikes
Thousands of Iraqi supporters of the largely Hashd militia had gathered at the embassy on Tuesday, outraged by US strikes.
They marched unimpeded through the checkpoints of the usually high-security Green Zone to the embassy gates, where they broke through a reception area, chanting "Death to America" and scribbling pro-Iran graffiti on the walls.
The protesters set up portable toilets and some 50 tents outside the perimeter wall vowing not to leave until US forces quit Iraq.
'Won't leave until Americans leave'
Earlier on Wednesday morning, a truck delivered hundreds of mattresses in an indication of the protesters' plans.
Crowds of men, some in military fatigues, brandished Hashd flags and chanted anti-US slogans.
"I spent the night here and I won't leave until the Americans leave and we enter the embassy," said one protester, who identified himself only as Abbas.
Some protesters set US flags on fire and hurled rocks towards the compound.
Security personnel inside responded with tear gas, wounding several protesters.
'They will pay'
Tuesday's embassy attack was the latest episode in spiralling tensions between the United States and Iran since Washington abandoned a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.
Many of those tensions have played out in Iraq, which has close ties with both governments.
US forces, who number some 5,200 across Iraq, have faced a spate of rocket attacks in recent months which US officials have blamed on pro-Iran factions within the Hashd.
Last week, one of those attacks killed a US contractor, prompting US air strikes on a hardline Hashd faction known as Kataeb Hezbollah.
In his first comments on the strikes, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday strongly condemned US "malice."
President Donald Trump and other top US officials have blamed Iran for the storming of the embassy compound.
"They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat," Trump wrote on Twitter, adding "Happy New Year!"
Alarmed that protesters were able to reach the embassy so easily, US officials have pressured Iraqi forces to step up security and sent a rapid response team of marines to help guard the compound overnight.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said around 750 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were prepared to deploy to the region in the coming days.
Trump’s reckless decisions to walk away from the Iran Deal and now to launch airstrikes in Iraq without Iraqi government consent have brought us closer to war and endangered U.S. troops and diplomats. We should end the forever wars, not start new ones.— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) December 31, 2019
Ties 'coldest' in years?
The attack highlighted the strains in the US-Iraqi relationship, which officials from both countries have described to AFP as the "coldest" in years.
The US-led the 2003 invasion against then-dictator Saddam Hussein and has worked closely with Iraqi officials since then, but its influence has waned in the face of Tehran's growing clout in Baghdad.
The dramatic scenes at the embassy on Tuesday sparked comparisons with both the 1979 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran and the deadly 2012 attack on the US consulate in Libya's second most populous city Benghazi.
Tehran summons envoy over US 'warmongering'
Meanwhile, Tehran summoned an official from the Swiss embassy, which represents US interests in Iran, to complain about American "warmongering" in neighbouring Iraq, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
"The Swiss charge d’affaires was summoned to the foreign ministry ... over stances of American officials with regards to developments in Iraq," the ministry said.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran conveyed its strong protest ... over warmongering remarks made by American officials which are in violation of the United Nations Charter," it added.
Also on Wednesday, the US embassy in Baghdad said all public consular operations were suspended.
"Due to militia attacks at the US embassy compound, all public consular operations are suspended until further notice. All future appointments are cancelled. US citizens are advised to not approach the embassy," it said in a statement.