Hundreds of protesters surrounded the United States embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday to demand an end to US “intervention” in the country.
Raising flags of the powerful paramilitary group Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), the crowds chanted “down, down USA”.
Many were dressed in army fatigues as they gathered around the heavily fortified embassy in the Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies in Baghdad are based.
Within hours, dozens had broken into the embassy compound after smashing a main door and setting fire to the reception area, according to witnesses.
Protesters told Al Jazeera that they stormed the embassy in response to US air attacks over Kataib Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria.
At least 25 members of Kataib Hezbollah forces, which belongs to the PMF, were killed and 51 others were injured in the strikes on Sunday.
The US said it launched the air strikes in retaliation to a rocket attack on Friday near Kirkuk – an attack that killed an American civilian contractor, and that Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.
“We are the Hashd and we are here to take revenge,” said a protester in his 40s, who refused to give his name for security reasons.
“We protesting here to condem the US strikes on the Hashd,” said Haydar, a protester in his 20s. “The Hashd are the ones who protected Iraq against terrorism.”
The Iran-backed Shia paramilitary group was aligned witht the Iraqi government in its battle against ISIL. It was formally incorporated into the Iraqi military in July 2019.
As the sun set on Baghdad, members of the crowd told Al Jazeera they would try to erect tents for the night and that they were prepared to launch an open-ended sit-in around the embassy until they saw action taken to “end US presence and intervention in the country.”
“We call on the Iraqi parliament to take action against the US. We want the Americans out,” said Haydar.
Ali, who described himself as a PMF supporter, said: “We came to mourn the people who died as a result of the US strikes in Qaim and to condemn the source [US] of all evil in Iraq since 2003.
“We are here because we are against US presence in Iraq and its targeting of the Hashd al-Shaabi and we won’t leave until parliament and the government puts an end to that.”
The escalation in the Iraqi capital comes on the heels of months-long anti-government protests that have gripped Baghdad and Iraq’s south since early October, with demonstrators calling for basic services, employment opportunities and an end to corruption.
The protesters’ calls quickly developed into demands for a complete overhaul of the political system, which they view as corrupt and sectarian.
At least 470 protesters have been killed and more than 20,000 others were injured in a crackdown on the movement.
Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, said it was important to distinguish between the protest movement and the crowds that gathered at the Green Zone on Monday.
“Although the protesters in Tahrir Square are against US interference, they represent a generation of young, disenfranchised Iraqis that stand against the ruling elite, the militias and armed groups,” said Mansour.
“On the other hand, the protesters outside the US embassy support the PMF and their allied forces.
“Rather than being anti-establishment, they support the Iraqi ruling elite.”
Mansour said that the tensions around the US embassy in Baghdad might affect the protest movement across Iraq.
“The risk of this development is that it may divert focus from what are legitimate concerns … to a focus on US intervention and demands for a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.”
‘They don’t represent us’
Meanwhile in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protest movement in Baghdad, protesters distanced themselves from the crowds near the US embassy in the Green Zone.
“Demonstrations at US embassy are a natural response to the US strikes over Hashd positions in Iraq,” 27-year-old Ali Khraybit told Al Jazeera.
“We, the protesters of Tahrir Square, condemn the strikes of course, whether it be Iran or the US who was responsible for them,” said Khraybit. “But we are staying here in the hub of the peaceful protest movement.
“The crowds in the Green Zone do not represent us. We want peaceful change,” he added.
Khraybit said he worried the escalation would lead to chaos in Baghdad.
“We all know the Hashd has weapons. If the security forces try to disperse the crowds, we might see a lot of blood,” he said.
Noor al-Araji, a 30-year-old protester in Tahrir Square said: “The protesters in the Green Zone do not represent us. They belong to and represent the Shia parties that we want overhauled.”
“We condemn the spilling blood and we stand against foreign intervention in Iraq. These escalations are due to an ongoing conflict between Iran and the US and we want to stay out of it.
“The world doesn’t realise that the people in the Green Zone are not the same as the protesters in Tahrir Square. We are peaceful and that’s why we’ve stayed away from the Green Zone today.”
Abdallah al-Salam contributed to this report from Baghdad