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Gunfire heard as protesters storm US embassy in Baghdad

Sky News logo Sky News 31/12/2019

Hundreds of Iraqi protesters have broken down the gate of the US embassy in Baghdad as they attempt to storm the compound.

Crowds have been gathering outside the building for hours over controversial American airstrikes that killed 25 fighters of an Iran-backed militia.

a person that is on fire: A fire has broken out at the scene of the protests © Sky A fire has broken out at the scene of the protests Gunfire has been heard at the scene and there are reports of tear gas, and an Associated Press journalist has reported seeing flames rising from inside and at least three US soldiers on the roof of the main building.

a group of people riding on the back of smoke: Smoke rises as crowds attempt to storm the US embassy in Baghdad © Sky Smoke rises as crowds attempt to storm the US embassy in Baghdad

Reuters reports that US embassy staff and the US ambassador are not in the building, citing Iraqi officials.

They are understood to have been evacuated before the gate - used by vehicles as well as guards - was broken down, with protesters having pelted the entrance with stones as they chanted: "No, no America! No, no Trump!"

Iraqi special forces have been deployed in a bid to prevent them entering the embassy and a man on a loudspeaker has urged the crowd to desist, saying: "The message was delivered."

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Protesters broke down the gate at the compound © Reuters Protesters broke down the gate at the compound

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior militia leaders are among the protesters who have gathered over the past few days.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Crowds gathered outside the building in their thousands © Reuters Crowds gathered outside the building in their thousands

Kataib Hezbollah flags have also been hung on the fence surrounding the building in a show of support.

The Kataib Hezbollah is the militia that was targeted by the deadly US strikes in the west of Iraq on Sunday, which caused at least 25 deaths and injured another 55 people.

The large protests began after Iraq condemned Washington for the strikes, which left American forces on alert for possible reprisal attacks.

Watch: US attacks Iran-backed militia in Iraq (Sky)

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Sky News' foreign affairs editor Deborah Haynes said of the strikes: "It's revived the absolute hatred many Iraqis feel about having US forces on their soil at all.

"That's in the wake of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, they remember all to well those days.

"US forces were actually welcomed back in 2014, by the government, to help in the fight against Islamic State (IS) and during that time they worked on the same side as these paramilitary groups, many backed by Iran, because they had a shared enemy in IS."

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Protesters have been urged to desist © Sky Protesters have been urged to desist

The bombardment also prompted the Iraqi national security council to say it would reconsider working with the US-led coalition against Islamic State.

a group of people walking down the street: The crowds have been gathering since the US strikes on Sunday © Sky The crowds have been gathering since the US strikes on Sunday

US, British and other foreign troops are only able to operate in Iraq with the permission of the government, and any review of the relationship could lead to permission being withdrawn.

a group of people walking in front of a crowd: Iraqis walk on a US national flag to denounce the strikes © Imagebridge Iraqis walk on a US national flag to denounce the strikes

Iran accused Washington of "an act of terrorism" over the attacks, even as US officials warned they were ready to launch more offensive action to defend American personnel and interests if required.

Concerns are growing that Iraq will become a new battleground for Tehran and Washington to wage a proxy war

In a statement from his office, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi described the American attack on the Iraqi armed forces as an "unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences". a person holding a flag: Iraqis burn a US national flag © Imagebridge Iraqis burn a US national flag

But US officials said any violation of sovereignty had been carried out by the Iranian-backed militia when it allegedly targeted a base in the northern city of Kirkuk in a rocket attack that left a US contractor dead.

US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker said the strikes, carried out by F-15 planes, were a message to Iran after months of "restraint". a construction site: The now-destroyed headquarters of the Kataib Hezbollah militia in western Iraq © Reuters The now-destroyed headquarters of the Kataib Hezbollah militia in western Iraq

They hit three targets in Iraq and two in Syria.

US troops and Iranian-backed militias have largely avoided direct confrontation in Iraq over the past five years as they both fought a common enemy in Islamic State.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: This protest sign reads: 'Close the American embassy otherwise people will close it' © Reuters This protest sign reads: 'Close the American embassy otherwise people will close it'

But a growing, global standoff between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear ambitions could see a flare up in hostilities on the ground in Iraq where both countries have a lot of interests, personnel and influence.

More than 5,000 US military personnel are based in Iraq as well as some 400 British forces.

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