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Pro-Iran Militia Withdrawing From US Embassy Perimeter In Baghdad

Protesters at U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad. December 31, 2019

Members and supporters of Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups began to withdraw from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday, a day after they stormed the outer perimeter, forcing Washington to dispatch extra troops and threaten reprisals against Iran.

On Wednesday, protests against U.S. air strikes that on Sunday targeted Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah centers and killed at least 25 people, continued. The crowd hurled rocks at the building while U.S. forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.

But by mid-afternoon, most of the protesters obeyed a call to withdraw, issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mainly Shi'ite militia, which said the demonstrators' "message has been heard".

Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound, while others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.

It is still not clear how they got access to the protected Green Zone where the embassy is located.

The protests mark a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East. U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020, on Tuesday threatened to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want to go to war.

Supporters of the Shiite militia rallied on Tuesday to protest, chanting death to America, setting fires, throwing rocks and smashing surveillance cameras. They breached an outer perimeter of the heavily guarded embassy but did not enter the main compound.

The huge embassy, built along the banks of the Tigris River in central Baghdad's fortified "green zone" during American occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is the biggest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world.

Washington says its diplomats are safe and it is rushing hundreds of extra troops to the region.

Reporting by Reuters, AFP