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US deploys 750 troops to Iraq as Trump threatens Iran over embassy attack

Protesters hurl stones at embassy for second day before completely withdrawing following calls from Tehran-backed paramilitary group
A handout picture received from the US embassy in Iraq shows US soldiers taking positions around the building (AFP)

US President Donald Trump warned Iran it would "pay a very big price" after Iraqi demonstrators stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad following American air strikes that killed 25 Iran-backed militia fighters over the weekend.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said around 750 troops from a rapid response unit of the 82nd Airborne Division are prepared to deploy over the next several days to the region.

"This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today," he said on Tuesday.

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Angered by the US air strikes against targets in Iraq and Syria on Sunday, thousands of protesters spilled through checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone on Tuesday, demanding the removal of US troops from Iraq.

Some demonstrators voiced loyalty to the influential Iranian general Qasem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the AFP news agency reported.

Overnight, demonstrators pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls. Then on Wednesday morning, they were bringing in food supplies, cooking equipment and mattresses, saying they would stay until US forces were ousted from the country.

Meanwhile, demonstrators hurled rocks at the compound while security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse them. Several people were reported wounded and ferried away by ambulances following the response by the security forces.

Hours later, after calls from the Tehran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary group to withdraw now that their "message has been heard", all of the demonstrators withdrew from the embassy, the Iraqi military said in a statement.

Escalation risk

The demonstrations mark a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East, and raise questions over the continued US military presence in Iraq.

On Sunday, the US launched air strikes against bases of the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah (KH) in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a US contractor at a base in northern Iraq on 27 December.

Analysts have argued that a decisive reprisal by Iran's Revolutionary Guard or its Shia militia allies could spark a major military confrontation between the two adversaries that might engulf the whole region. 

At the same time, they say, Iran stands to gain from the disproportionate US response as its calls for an end to American military presence, pick up momentum and add to pre-existing strains in US-Iraqi relations.

Allies of Iran, which enjoys significant support in parts of the Iraqi government, increasingly challenge Washington's influence in the country nearly 17 years after the US invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

'They will pay a very BIG PRICE!'

Esper's announcement is the latest move by Washington to step up its forces in the region since Trump in May 2018 pulled out of a multinational nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed crippling economic sanctions.

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Trump blamed Tehran for the embassy attack and warned that it would face punishment if Americans are killed. 

"Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities," Trump tweeted on Tuesday.  

"They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat," wrote Trump, adding "Happy New Year!"

However, Trump later told reporters that he did not foresee war with Tehran.

The US president also described his own handling of the situation in Baghdad as the "Anti-Benghazi!" 

In 2012, four Americans were killed at the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, causing an uproar from Republicans who accused Democrats - particularly then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - of not providing adequate security to US diplomats in Libya.

'Surprising audacity of American officials'

Trump's message came at the end of a day in which Washington officials appeared surprised and furious over the ease at which the protestors entered the Green Zone, reaching the US embassy compound for the first time in years.

Live broadcasts showed the protesters battering down the high-security doors of the embassy reception building, smashing windows, burning a sentry box and chanting "Death to America!"

The State Department and Pentagon demanded Iraq's leaders provide security to the compound, which was already heavily fortified.

Tehran said the US is itself to blame following the air strikes.

"The surprising audacity of American officials is so much that after killing at least 25... and violating the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, that now... they attribute the Iraqi people's protest against their cruel acts to the Islamic Republic of Iran," said foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

Iran's supreme leader also strongly condemned the US attacks on Wednesday.

"The Iranian government, nation and I strongly condemn the attacks," state TV quoted Ali Khamenei as saying.