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Iraqi supporters of Iran-backed militia attack U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

Dozens of angry Iraqi Shia militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire.

Protests follow deadly U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 Kataib Hezbollah fighters on Sunday

Iraqi Shia supporters of an Iran-backed militia set a sentry box ablaze in front of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to protest American airstrikes. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Dozens of angry Iraqi Shia supporters of an Iran-backed militia broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire.

An Associated Press reporter saw flames rising from inside the compound and at least three U.S. soldiers on the roof of the main building inside the embassy. There was a fire at the reception area near the parking lot of the compound, but the cause was unclear. A man on a loudspeaker urged the mob not to enter the compound, saying: "The message was delivered."

The embassy attack followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataib Hezbollah. The U.S. military said it was in retaliation for last week's killing of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that it had blamed on the militia.

Dozens of protesters pushed into the compound after smashing the gate used by cars to enter the embassy. The protesters, many in militia uniform, stopped in a corridor after about five metres and were only about 200 metres away from the main building. Half a dozen U.S. soldiers were seen on the roof of the main building, their guns pointed at the protesters.

Watch as Iraqi protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad:

Protesters breached the U.S. Embassy's outer wall in Baghdad Tuesday following deadly U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 Kataib Hezbollah fighters on Sunday. 0:51

Smoke from the tear gas rose in the area, and at least three of the protesters appeared to have difficulties breathing. It wasn't immediately known whether the embassy staff had remained inside the main building.

The protesters put up a poster on the wall: "America is an aggressor."

U.S. President Donald Trump responded to the embassy attack, accusing Iran of orchestrating the attack and saying it will be "fully held responsible."

"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," Trump wrote on Twitter hours after the attack.

Later, U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. was sending additional forces to its embassy in Baghdad and immediately deploying about 750 soldiers to the Middle East in response to the attack.  

"We have taken appropriate force protection actions to ensure the safety of American citizens, military personnel and diplomats in country, and to ensure our right of self-defence," Esper said in a statement.

"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 fulfil its international responsibilities to do so," he added.

Protesters breached the U.S. Embassy's outer wall and chanted 'Death to America' on Tuesday. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Yassine al-Yasseri, Iraq's interior minister, appeared outside the embassy at one point and walked around to inspect the scene. He told the AP the prime minister had warned the U.S. strikes on the Shia militiamen would have serious consequences.

"This is one of the implications," al-Yasseri said. "This is a problem and [it] is embarrassing to the government."

No one was immediately reported hurt in the rampage and security staff had withdrawn to inside the embassy earlier, soon after protesters gathered outside.

Seven armoured vehicles with about 30 Iraqi soldiers arrived near the embassy hours after the violence erupted, deploying near the embassy walls but not close to the breached area.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih by telephone from Washington and he said they had guaranteed the safety of U.S. personnel and property.

"The Secretary made clear the United States will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq," a State Department spokesperson said.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces, though Iraq has rejected any long-term presence of additional U.S. forces that crossed its border during an American withdrawal from northern Syria.

Escalation in U.S.-Iran proxy war

The U.S. airstrikes — the largest targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia in recent years — and the subsequent calls by the militia for retaliation represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran playing out in the Middle East.

Tuesday's attempted embassy storming took place after mourners and supporters held funerals for the militia fighters killed in a Baghdad neighbourhood, after which they marched on to the heavily fortified Green Zone and kept walking until they reached the sprawling U.S. Embassy there.

AP journalists then saw the crowd as they tried to scale the walls of the embassy, in what appeared to be an attempt to storm it, shouting "Down, down USA!" and "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."

Paramilitary fighters tried to enter the U.S. Embassy during Tuesday's protest. (Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters)

Pompeo said Sunday's strikes send the message the U.S. will not tolerate actions by Iran that jeopardize American lives.

The Iranian-backed Iraqi militia had vowed Monday to retaliate for the U.S. military strikes. The attack and vows for revenge raised concerns of new attacks that could threaten American interests in the region.

The U.S. attack also outraged both the militias and the Iraqi government, which said it will reconsider its relationship with the U.S.-led coalition — the first time it has said it will do so since an agreement was struck to keep some U.S. troops in the country. It called the attack a "flagrant violation" of its sovereignty.

In a partly televised meeting Monday, Abdul-Mahdi told cabinet members he had tried to stop the U.S. operation, "but there was insistence" from American officials.

The U.S. military said "precision defensive strikes" were conducted against five sites of Kataib Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq and Syria. The group, a separate force from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, operates under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Many of them are supported by Iran.

With files from Reuters