“Opened with much fanfare over a decade ago as a symbol of American influence in Iraq, on Tuesday it seemed as much a symbol vulnerability of the United States in an Iraq in which it now has few friends,” reported The Washington Post’s Liz Sly and Mustafa Salim.
To the lay eye, the images of a burning and besieged U.S. Embassy could have been mistaken for any number of assaults like this in the past. American diplomatic facilities, after all, have long been targets. Protests outside of U.S. compounds are common. Many such incidents only flicker across news headlines, but some have dramatically affected U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics.
Here’s a look at how some of the more-notable events compare with Tuesday’s incident.
2012 Benghazi attacks
So far, there are no reported deaths or injuries of U.S. Embassy staff members in Baghdad. U.S. Ambassador Matt Tueller was away traveling Tuesday, while the State Department reported that “U.S. personnel are secure” and “there are no plans” to evacuate the embassy.
That tragically wasn’t the case on Sept. 12, 2012, when armed Islamist militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Three other Americans died that day in attacks in the city.
That same day, protesters also stormed the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen. The unrest there was sparked by a low budget, anti-Muslim film in the United States.
The events in Libya — then, like now, in the throes of a civil war — were far more violent from the start. The attackers were heavily armed and quickly overwhelmed security at the isolated diplomatic compound. The gunmen even had mortar rounds, which they launched at a nearby CIA facility.
The swiftness and scale of the attack was shocking. Initially, the United States reported that the attacks were similar to the events in Yemen and Egypt. But after news of the extent of the attacks surfaced, it became clear that this was no mere act of protest. Because the Benghazi attacks fell on the anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaeda, the perpetrator of those attacks was initially suspected. Eventually, members of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia group, were charged with the attacks. Domestically, debate over the attack continued for years.
With Baghdad, the parties responsible were clear: Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias were expressing their outrage at U.S. airstrikes carried out over the weekend against militia facilities. President Trump weighed in, directly accusing Iran of “orchestrating” it.
1998 East African bombings
A staggering 224 people, including 12 Americans, were killed in near-simultaneous car bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. Al-Qaeda ultimately took responsibility for the attacks, which brought the name of the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, to the forefront of American news for the first time. Three years later, Bin Laden became seared in America’s collective memory after the 9/11 attacks.
In Baghdad, the pro-Iran Shiite militias and their leaders mobilizing protesters have been on the radar of U.S. intelligence services and diplomats for a long time. Many rose after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to attack American forces and wage a sectarian civil war. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group whose supporters formed Tuesday’s crowd, briefly aligned with U.S. forces in the fight against the Islamic State. But now they are back allied with Iran against U.S. interests in Iraq.
1983 Kuwait bombing
On Dec. 12, 1983, a truck bomb rammed the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, killing five people. The same day the French Embassy and four other diplomatic institutions were also attacked.
In 2007, a Kuwaiti court sentenced to death in absentia an alleged mastermind of the attack: Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, who goes by the nickname Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. That same year the United States designated the Iraqi-Iranian a terrorist.
Muhandis went on to serve as a lawmaker in Iraq’s parliament. But he’s better known for his other work: Forming Kataib Hezbollah, a small but powerful pro-Iranian Iraqi militia that on Sunday U.S. airstrikes targeted in Iraq. He’s also the deputy head of the PMF and was there with the crowd Tuesday trying to breach the embassy in retaliation, he said, for the U.S. airstrikes.
1979 takeover of the Embassy in Tehran
For 444 days starting Nov. 4, 1979, American diplomats and other personnel were held as hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. The event deeply scarred the relationship between Washington and Tehran.
Iran was in the midst of a revolution at the time, and the embassy in Central Tehran became a gathering place for students and Islamist protesters after its seizure. The compound is now controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and includes a museum that’s a time capsule of life in 1979. The United States hasn’t had direct diplomatic relations with Tehran since.
On Tuesday in Baghdad, some pro-Iran militia supporters set up tents outside the U.S. Embassy. A Kataib Hezbollah spokesman told The Post that the group will camp beside the compound until the embassy closes and all U.S. diplomats and troops are sent out of Iraq.
The massive and heavily fortified U.S. Embassy complex was designed to be hard to breach — which is part of what made Tuesday’s developments shocking. Still, the embassy is like a self-contained colony and the militia supporters reached only the very outer perimeter.