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US sending troops to Iraq to protect embassy threatened by protesters

Posted at 7:16 AM, Jan 01, 2020

The United States will send approximately 750 soldiers to the Middle East immediately, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed in a written statement Tuesday, after attacks broke out in Baghdad among hundreds of protesters in response to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria conducted by US forces on Sunday.

"At the direction of the Commander in Chief, I have authorized the deployment of an infantry battalion from the Immediate Response Force of the 82nd Airborne Division (in Fort Bragg, North Carolina) to the U.S. Central Command area of operations in response to recent events in Iraq," Esper said, adding that additional forces "are prepared to deploy over the next several days."

"This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today. The United States will protect our people and interests anywhere they are found around the world," Esper added.

In a statement earlier Tuesday, Esper said the US would deploy "additional forces to support our personnel at the Embassy" and that officials had "taken appropriate force protection actions to ensure the safety of American citizens, military personnel and diplomats" serving in Iraq.

"As in all countries, we rely on host nation forces to assist in the protection of our personnel in country, and we call on the Government of Iraq to fulfill its international responsibilities to do so," Esper said.

The US had sent two Apache helicopters to fly over the embassy in a show of force, a US official told CNN earlier Tuesday. The US also earlier deployed about 100 US Marines from a crisis response task force based in Kuwait to bolster security at the embassy. Those Marines flew into the embassy compound aboard MV-22 Osprey aircraft.

A defense official told CNN earlier Tuesday that it was unlikely that the additional soldiers coming from the 82nd Airborne will be sent to Iraq, but will instead be sent to a nearby country or countries in the region so they are positioned to respond quickly if the situation deteriorates.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Tuesday evening that there are currently no plans to evacuate the embassy or pull out US troops.

The deployment comes amid fallout over US airstrikes against five facilities the Pentagon says are tied to an Iranian-backed militia blamed for a series of attacks on joint US-Iraq military facilities housing American forces.

Two sources at the demonstration on Tuesday witnessed an attempt to break into the premises, adding that security personnel fired tear gas to repel the attack. Video footage shows demonstrators smashing windows, burning items outside and throwing rocks over the walls. The embassy, in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, has been put under lockdown, but protesters have not been able to breach the compound, an embassy spokesperson told CNN.

The airstrikes occurred at about 11 a.m. ET Sunday, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. Killing at least 25 people and wounding 51, they stand as the first significant military response in retaliation for attacks by the Shia militia group, known as Kataib Hezbollah, that have injured numerous American military personnel and killed a US citizen working as a contractor, according to US officials.

Many of those who attempted to storm the embassy appeared to members of the same militia group.

Esper briefed Trump Saturday before carrying them out with the President's approval, according to a US official familiar with the strikes.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman described the strikes against the group as "precision defensive strikes" that "will degrade" the group's ability to conduct future attacks against coalition forces.

President Donald Trump confirmed Tuesday that the airstrikes were a response to a recent attack that killed a US contractor. He blamed Iran both for the contractor's death and Tuesday's attack on the embassy.

"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!" Trump tweeted .