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Crisis at U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is over, but tensions remain

After the most significant standoff outside a U.S. Embassy in years, demonstrators in Baghdad stood down on Wednesday -- but they also declared victory. Sarkawt Shams, a member of the Iraqi parliament, and Douglas Silliman, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, join Nick Schifrin to discuss the politics and parties involved in the incident and why tensions continue to run high.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Baghdad over the last day, there was a sense of crisis, American diplomats trapped in the embassy, U.S. troops on the embassy roof ready to fire into crowds.

    Today, the siege outside the embassy is winding down, but the larger U.S.-Iran tensions remain high.

    After the most significant standoff outside a U.S. Embassy in years, demonstrators in Baghdad today stood down and declared victory.

  • Fadhil Al-Gezzi¬†(through translator):

    After we achieved what we intended here, we pulled out from this place triumphantly, and we soaked America's news in dirt.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For 24 hours, supporters of the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah staged a sit-in, and scaled the embassy walls, and broke the reception area's windows. They demanded the U.S. close the embassy and withdraw its more than 5,000 troops from Iraq.

    They were responding to Sunday's U.S. airstrikes against members of the same militia. The U.S. blames the group for killing an American military contractor and attacking U.S. bases in Iraq 11 times in the last two months.

    On CBS News yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the Iranian government.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    This is state-sponsored terror. This is Iranian-backed terrorism that took place that threatened American interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    During the sit-in, U.S. troops fired tear gas and stun grenades to push back demonstrators. Helicopters flew over the embassy and dropped flares. And the U.S. reinforced the embassy, deploying Marines from Kuwait and 750 additional soldiers from the U.S.

    The U.S. was concerned Iraqi forces alone couldn't handle the situation. At first, Iraqi forces allowed demonstrators to stream toward the embassy, inside the normally restricted Green Zone. Eventually, they tried to act as a buffer between demonstrators and American troops.

    And, today, they continue to act as security. But the end to the crisis in Baghdad doesn't reduce larger U.S.-Iran tensions. Yesterday, President Trump tweeted that Iran — quote — "will pay a very big price. This is not a warning. It is a threat. Happy new year."

    Today, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied Iran played a role and mocked President Trump.

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei¬†(through translator):

    That gentleman has again tweeted. They tweet, speak or write articles, and he has said that, we see Iran responsible for this situation in Iraq, that Iran is controlling this, and we will respond to Iran.

    First, you can't do a damn thing. This has nothing to do with Iran. Second, be logical.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Outside the embassy, there are still a few hundred holdouts. And a few miles away, a separate demonstration. Thousands of anti-corruption protesters fill Baghdad's Tahrir Square. They have been in the streets since October, demanding less sectarianism and more economic opportunity for all Iraqis.

    Now two people with first-hand experience with the parties involved in the embassy standoff.

    Sarkawt Shams is a member of the Iraqi Parliament representing the Kurdistan region. He joins me from the city of Sulaymaniyah. And Douglas Silliman, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq until early last year, he is now the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute, a Washington think tank.

    Sarkawt Shams, the siege is over, but do you right now have criticism of both the Iraqi forces that allowed some of these protesters, these demonstrators, these members of the militia to get so close to the embassy, and do you have criticism of what started this, the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq over the weekend?

  • Sarkawt Shams:


    Both countries to blame, both parties to blame for the starting of this crisis. First, the U.S. unilateral action against elements of the PMU, or the Shia militias that the West them, some of them. And it was a mistake, it was a strategic mistake by the Iraqi security forces that are protecting the Green Zone, the international zone, where the U.S. Embassy and many other embassies and Iraqi — sensitive Iraqi institutions like Parliament are located there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Silliman, you were in the embassy up until recently, up until last year.

    So, Sarkawt Shams has two points. One, did the Iraqi forces do enough to keep these people away from the embassy? I assume you agree that they might have done more. But also that the U.S. didn't enough — didn't do enough to actually tell the Iraqi government before these airstrikes this weekend?

  • Douglas Silliman:

    First of all, in the short term, the Iraqi security forces that were guarding the Green Zone and the diplomat — diplomatic establishment obviously didn't do enough to keep the protesters from attacking the embassy.

    And it was only after the attack was well under way, and there was damage to the embassy wall and reception area itself, that they called in the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, which are the equivalent of U.S. Special Forces.

    The trouble is, this issue is much broader and can be put in a couple of different contexts. So, the Iraqi government has not done enough to prevent the Popular Mobilization Forces, the — what are generally called Shia militias, but that's too broad a concept — these irregular forces that are now part of the Iraqi government have not been controlled by the government adequately to prevent them from conducting attacks against Iraq institutions or diplomatic institutions.

    So that's the first issue. The second issue is the larger context. There is still the context of Iran consistently trying to poke the United States into action. You saw this in the Gulf of Oman months and months ago, the shooting down of the U.S. drone, and more recently, in October, the attacks on Saudi Arabian oil installations conducted by Iran, looking for that pressure point that is going to get the United States to react or, hopefully, in Iran's eyes, overreact to the Iranian provocation.

    And up until this attack that killed an American, there wasn't a U.S. military response.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sarkawt Shams, there has been a push by the same militia that we saw doing these attacks and this demonstration outside the embassy to evict the U.S. from Iraq.

    Will Parliament now be more likely to take up the question of evicting the U.S. from Iraq?

  • Sarkawt Shams:

    I don't think so. It's going to happen in the Parliament.

    First of all, it wasn't the Parliament who invited the U.S. Army to Iraq. It was the prime minister, then Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. It came at the invite and request of the Iraqi government, not the Parliament.

    If the Iraqi government doesn't need them, if the Iraqi military doesn't need U.S. Army, which I think they need them now, they can just ask them to leave, and they will leave eventually, in a few days. We don't need a bill in the Parliament to push the foreign forces.

    Taking the issue, the crisis to the Parliament, that which means these leaders, they don't want U.S. forces to leave. They just want to show up and just make it a case for their people — to satisfy their people. That's not a real step toward removing U.S. forces in Iraq.

    That's just a political show.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mr. Shams, are you worried that the U.S. military response plays into Iran's hand? Iran has been goading the U.S. to attack.

    And are you worried that Iraq is becoming the main theater for a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran?

  • Sarkawt Shams:

    That's already happening. And that's the fear of all Iraqis, including the — even the Kurdish government, Iraq to be transformed to a proxy war between the two nations.

    Both nations are important to Iraq. Both, they have strategic relations with Iraq. And we cannot ignore and favor one over another one. What we want is both countries to have their conflict resolved elsewhere, not in Iraq.

    Ambassador Silliman, he already know — he have a lot of experience in this country — that Iraqi institutions are weak in military institutions, economic institutions and (INAUDIBLE) we have a caretaker prime minister who cannot really execute his full constitutional power, due to he resigned, and we are awaiting a new prime minister.

    So we are in a very fragile and a very dangerous region. And we require support from the United States. And we know that it's really easy to start a war, but it is going to be almost impossible to win the peace.

  • Douglas Silliman:

    The reality is — I would reframe the entire question, because it is not a war between the United States and Iran on Iraqi territory.

    The goals of the United States in Iraq are internationally recognized. We have got a 17-country coalition to help Iraq defeat ISIS finally and to train and mentor toward the military. We have been working with the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and a number of other international organizations to build Iraqi institutions, so that Iraq can be an independent sovereign state and exercise its own sovereignty positively in the international community.

    It is Iran that has been undermining the Iranian constitution — the Iraqi constitution, putting its proxy forces or supporters into positions in the Iraqi government, and not obeying by the laws and the constitution of Iraq.

    And so this is not the United States vs. Iran. This is the world vs. Iran. And the goals of Iran are to essentially swallow Iraq politically, economically, and give itself security strategic depth.

    The world wants to see Iraq fully integrated into the international community in a positive way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Silliman, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Sarkawt Shams, member of Iraqi Parliament, thank you very much to you both.

  • Sarkawt Shams:

    Thank you for having me.

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