American embassy in Iraq under rocket fire, US cuts troops

Baghdad: A volley of rockets slammed into the Iraqi capital Baghdad late Tuesday, killing one girl and breaking a month-long truce on attacks against the US embassy.

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The violence came as Washington announced a historic cut in its troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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According to the Iraqi military, four of the rockets landed in the high-security Green Zone, where the US embassy and other foreign missions are based.

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Another three rockets also hit other parts of Baghdad, killing one girl and wounding five civilians.

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All seven rockets were launched from the same location in east Baghdad, the Iraqi military said in a statement.

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AFP reporters heard several large blasts, followed by rapid-fire sounds and red flares lighting up the sky, indicating that the embassy’s C-RAM rocket defence system was deployed.

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A spokesman for the US-led coalition said Iraqi intelligence had confirmed a rocket attack on the US embassy but declined to comment on the C-RAM usage.

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Since October 2019, nearly 90 deadly rocket attacks and roadside bombs have targeted foreign embassies, troops and other installations across Iraq.

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The attacks have been claimed by groups described by both US and Iraqi officials as “smokescreens” for hardline Iran-aligned factions in Iraq.

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The US has explicitly named Kataeb Hezbollah as behind some of the violence and has twice bombed the group.

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The attacks infuriated Washington, which has pressured Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi to take tougher action against the perpetrators.

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Last month, the US issued an ultimatum to Al Kadhemi’s government, threatening to close down its diplomatic compound in Baghdad if the rockets did not stop.

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Troops to trickle out

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The escalation prompted pro-Iran factions to announce a truce for an unspecified amount of time. The rockets immediately halted, with Tuesday’s attack the first in more than a month.

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It came just hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who Iraqi sources said had relayed the threat to close the embassy, called Al Kadhemi.

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Around the same time, the US announced it would slash troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each country, their lowest levels in nearly 20 years of war.

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Washington still has some 3,000 troops stationed across Iraq as part of the US-led coalition helping the country fight Daesh since 2014.

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The coalition had already significantly drawn down its troop levels this year, partly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions

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But the troop presence irks Iraq’s eastern neighbour and key ally Iran, which has insisted the US should militarily withdraw from the entire Middle East.

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Tehran has ramped up those calls since January, when a US drone strike in Baghdad killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and a leading Iraqi paramilitary official.

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Outraged by the strike, Iraq’s parliament voted for all foreign troops to leave the country and pro-Tehran factions have organised a series of demonstrations against the US military.

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The Al Kadhemi-led government has slow-walked the decision, and instead launched a strategic dialogue with the US on military, diplomatic and economic issues.

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Iraqi officials told AFP they hope the dialogue will continue as planned after President-elect Joe Biden takes over the US administration in January.

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But they see a turbulent few months ahead: the officials expect President Donald Trump to unleash a “bucket-list of sanctions” on Iranian entities, including some operating in Iraq.

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They did not rule out last-minute military action by the Trump administration on Iranian interests in Iraq.

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And they confirmed the US had continued with its planning for an embassy withdrawal despite last month’s truce.

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