Hundreds of protesters surrounded the US embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday to demand an end to the US "intervention,quot; in the country.
Raising flags of the powerful paramilitary group Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), the crowds chanted "down, down, the United States."
Many were dressed in military fatigue as they gathered around the heavily fortified embassy in the Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are located in Baghdad.
Within hours, dozens of people stormed the embassy complex after breaking a main door and setting fire to the reception area, according to witnesses.
Protesters told Al Jazeera that they broke into the embassy in response to US air strikes on Kataib Hezbollah's positions in Iraq and Syria.
At least 25 members of Kataib Hezbollah's forces, who belong to the PMF, died and 51 others were injured in Sunday's attacks.
The United States said it launched air strikes in retaliation for a rocket attack on Friday near Kirkuk, which killed an American civilian contractor, an assault that Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.
"We are the Hashd and we are here to avenge ourselves," said a protester in his forties, who refused to give his name for security reasons.
"We are protesting here to condemn the US attacks on the Hashd," said Haydar, a protester in his twenties. "The Hashd are the ones who protected Iraq against terrorism."
the The Shiite paramilitary group backed by Iran aligned with the Iraqi government in its battle against ISIL. He formally joined the Iraqi army in July 2019.
When the sun set in Baghdad, members of the crowd told Al Jazeera that they would try to raise tents for the night and that they were prepared to launch an open sitting around the embassy. until they saw actions taken to "put an end to the presence and intervention of the United States in the country."
"We call on the Iraqi parliament to take action against the United States. We want the Americans to leave," he said. Haydar
Ali, who described himself as a supporter of PMF, said: "We came to mourn the people who died as a result of the US attacks on Qaim and condemn the source (USA) of all evil in Iraq since 2003.
"We are here because we are against the presence of the United States in Iraq and its objective of Hashd al-Shaabi and we will not leave until the parliament and the government put an end to that."
The escalation in the Iraqi capital comes after the anti-government protests of months that have taken over Baghdad and southern Iraq since early October, with protesters calling for basic services, employment opportunities and the end of corruption.
The protesters' calls quickly became demands for a complete review of the political system, which they consider corrupt and sectarian.
At least 470 protesters have been killed and more than 20,000 were injured in an offensive against 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 in the Green Zone on Monday.
"Although the protesters in Tahrir Square are against interference from the United States, they represent a generation of young Iraqis and deprived of their rights that oppose the ruling elite, militias and armed groups," Mansour said.
"On the other hand, protesters outside the US embassy support the PMF and its allied forces.
"Instead of being anti-establishment, they support the Iraqi ruling elite."
Mansour said tensions around the US embassy in Baghdad could affect the protest movement throughout Iraq.
"The risk of this development is that it can divert the focus from what are legitimate concerns … to a focus on US intervention and demands for a withdrawal of US forces from Iraq."
& # 39; They don't represent us & # 39;
Meanwhile, in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement in Baghdad, protesters distanced themselves from the crowds near the US embassy in the Green Zone.
"Demonstrations at the US embassy are a natural response to the US attacks on Hashd's positions in Iraq," Ali Khraybit, 27, told Al Jazeera.
"We, the protesters in Tahrir Square, condemn the attacks, of course, whether Iran or the United States responsible for them," Khraybit said. "But we stayed here at the center of the peaceful protest movement.
"The crowds in the Green Zone do not represent us. We want a peaceful change."
Khraybit said he was worried that the escalation would lead to chaos in Baghdad.
"We all know that the Hashd has weapons. If security forces try to disperse the crowds, we could see a lot of blood," he said.
Noor al-Araji, a 30-year-old protester in Tahrir Square said: "Protesters in the Green Zone do not represent us. They belong and represent the Shiite parties that we want to be reviewed."
"We condemn the bloodshed and oppose foreign intervention in Iraq. These escalations are due to an ongoing conflict between Iran and the United States and we want to avoid it."
"The world does not realize that the people in the Green Zone are not the same as the protesters in Tahrir Square. We are peaceful and that is why we have stayed away from the Green Zone today."
Abdallah al-Salam contributed to this report from Baghdad
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