No decisions made about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – No decisions have been made on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, the State Department said on Wednesday after a bipartisan report to Congress called on Washington to delay a Trump administration plan to pull all U.S. forces out by May 1.

“At this time, no decisions about our force posture have been made,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, saying the Biden administration was reviewing the U.S.-Taliban troop withdrawal pact negotiated by the Trump administration.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.S. troops in Afghanistan now down to 2,500, lowest since 2001: Pentagon

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of U.S troops in Afghanistan has been reduced to 2,500, the lowest level of American forces there since 2001, the Pentagon said on Friday.

In November, President Donald Trump’s administration said it would sharply cut the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, stopping short of a threatened full withdrawal from America’s longest war after fierce opposition from allies at home and abroad.

“Moving forward, while the Department continues with planning capable of further reducing U.S. troop levels to zero by May of 2021, any such future drawdowns remain conditions-based,” acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said in a statement on reaching 2,500 troops.

On Monday, Reuters reported the U.S. military had not halted an American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite a new law prohibiting further reductions without the Pentagon sending Congress an assessment of the risks.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Major Rob Lodewick, on Friday said Trump had signed a waiver allowing for the troop reduction, though it appears to have happened when the move was already complete.

“Convention dictates that reducing troop levels, associated equipment and adjusting associated force protection requirements across a country-wide combat zone is not something that can be paused overnight without increasing risk to the force and core mission goals,” Lodewick said.

U.S. forces invaded the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by the Islamist al Qaeda group based in Afghanistan. At its peak in 2011, the United States had more than 100,000 troops there.

President-elect Joe Biden has given few clues on what his plans are for Afghanistan. However, one option could be to leave a small counterterrorism force in the country, where its former Taliban rulers, al Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group still have a presence.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump could withdraw troops from Somalia as part of global pullback

By Phil Stewart and Katharine Houreld

WASHINGTON/NAIROBI (Reuters) – President Donald Trump may withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Somalia as part of a global pullback that could see major reductions in Afghanistan and a slight drawdown in Iraq, U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that nothing had been finalized and that no orders have been received by the U.S. military. However, there appeared to be a growing expectation on Tuesday that drawdown orders would be coming soon.

The Pentagon declined comment on future decisions on troop deployments. Reuters reported on Monday that Trump was expected to settle for a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite promising to pull out all troops by Christmas.

He is also expected to order a small drawdown in Iraq, from 3,000 to 2,500, U.S. officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States has about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency, in a mission that receives little attention in the United States but is considered a cornerstone of the Pentagon’s global efforts to combat al Qaeda.

Trump’s newly-installed acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, a former Green Beret and counter-terrorism official, is taking a hard look at Somalia and could opt for keeping a minimal presence there and stop relying on large deployments to combat the group.

Critics say such a radical change in approach carries significant risk.

Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years as the commander of the Danab special forces until 2019, said any such decision to pull back would not be based on the counter-terrorism threat in Somalia and could undermine trust in the United States.

“This is being dictated by politics,” he said.

The United States already pulled out of Bossaso and Galkayo around three weeks ago. They remain in the southern port city of Kismayo, a special forces airbase in Baledogle and in the capital Mogadishu, but a rapid pullout risks ceding ground to al Shabaab, Sheikh said.

“It would create a vacuum. The Somali security forces have good morale because of the U.S. troops … there’s the possibility of air support if they are attacked, they can have medevacs,” Sheikh said.

Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1991, but over the past decade the African Union-backed peacekeeping force has clawed back control of the capital and large swathes of the country from al Shabaab.

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. troops to start extended exercises in Lithuania amid tensions over Belarus

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, but the government said the move was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, NATO member Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-planned military exercises. These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus,” it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government had indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over the Aug. 9 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

Lukashenko has denied accusations by the Belarus opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted protesters’ demands to step down. He has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help if needed.

The deployment in Lithuania, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the United States would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

He repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

“Deployment was aligned with training schedule and training area availability,” defense minister spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite told Reuters.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will take part in an annual exercise on Sept. 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

Trump pushes military response as U.S. girds for more protests

By Nathan Layne and Brendan O’Brien

NEW YORK/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday said U.S. troops should take to the streets of New York City to quell unrest, as authorities across the country prepared for another night of protests over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody.

Dozens of cities are under curfews. The head of the U.S. National Guard said on Tuesday that 18,000 Guard members were assisting local law enforcement in 29 states.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials seemed taken aback by the extent of mayhem overnight in some major U.S. cities where police were shot at and pelted with rocks and projectiles as they faced hostile crowds.

Demonstrators smashed windows and looted stores in New York, including luxury retailers on Fifth Avenue, and set fire to a Los Angeles strip mall. Four officers were shot in St. Louis and one in Las Vegas who was critically wounded, authorities said.

Trump has threatened to use the military to battle violence that has erupted nightly, often after a day of peaceful protests. He has derided local authorities, including state governors, for their response to the disturbances.

“NYC, CALL UP THE NATIONAL GUARD. The lowlifes and losers are ripping you apart. Act fast!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. He deploying thousands of armed soldiers and law enforcement in the U.S. capital and vowed to do the same wherever authorities fail to regain control.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo voiced outrage at the chaos in America’s largest city, saying its mayor and police force “did not do their job last night.” He said he believed Mayor Bill de Blasio underestimated the scope of the problem.

The governor said he had offered the state’s mayors support from state police or 13,000 National Guard who are on standby and said that with a 38,000-strong police force, New York City should be able to address its unrest on its own.

He added that Trump sought to blur the line between protesters representing a cross-section of Americans with a legitimate cause and looters. Authorities blame the looting and vandalism on a relatively small number of people protesting against police brutality.

De Blasio poured cold water on the idea of deploying the National Guard in his city.

Demonstrators have taken to the streets over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American who died after a white policeman pinned his neck under a knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25.

Derek Chauvin, the 44-year-old Minneapolis police officer who planted his knee on Floyd’s neck, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved have not been charged.

MARTIN LUTHER KING REMEMBERED

Floyd’s death has reignited the explosive issue of police brutality against African Americans and led to a painful reexamination of race relations five months before a divided America votes in a presidential election.

Some of those who have gathered at the site of Floyd’s killing have invoked the non-violent message of the late U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated in 1968, as the only way forward.

“He would be truly appalled by the violence because he gave his life for this stuff,” said Al Clark, 62, a black man who drove to the Minneapolis memorial with one of King’s speeches blaring from his truck.

“But I can understand the frustration and anger.”

In Atlanta, six officers will face charges for an incident in which two college students were removed from their car and tased, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told a briefing. Two of the six officers were terminated on Sunday.

A police officer in Sarasota, Florida, was placed on leave on Tuesday after video surfaced showing the officer kneeling on a man’s back and neck during an arrest in May.

Officers were injured in clashes elsewhere, including one who was in critical condition after being hit by a car in the Bronx, police said.

The protests have escalated racial tensions in a country hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with African Americans making up a disproportionately high number of cases and being hard hit by job losses from lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus.

Critics accuse Trump, who is seeking re-election in a Nov. 3 election, of further stoking conflict and racial tension rather than seeking to bring the country together and address the underlying issues.

“President Trump is right to be focused on law and order. He wasn’t hired to be the consoler-in-chief,” said Jason Miller, who advised the Republican Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden pledged in a speech on Tuesday to try to heal the racial divide in America and blasted Trump’s response to the protests.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Lisa Lambert, Maria Caspani, Peter Szekely, Zachary Fagenson, Brendan O’Brien, Nathan Layne, Susan Heavey and Brad Brooks; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)

Trump warns Iran, proxies against attacking U.S. in Iraq

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday warned Iran and its proxies against attacking U.S. troops or assets in Iraq, citing a possible “sneak attack” but giving no other details.

“Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!” Trump said in a post on Twitter.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chris Reese; Editing by Chris Reese)

Pompeo to Iraq PM: U.S. will take action in self-defense if attacked

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraq’s prime minister that the United States would take measures in self-defense if attacked, according to a statement on Monday after a rocket attack on an Iraqi base that houses U.S. troops helping fight Islamic State.

Pompeo spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Sunday, a day after three American troops and several Iraqi forces were wounded in the second major rocket attack in the past week on an Iraqi base north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, raising the stakes in an escalating cycle of attacks and reprisals.

He said Iraq’s government should defend the U.S.-led coalition helping it fight Islamic State, according to the statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

“Secretary Pompeo underscored that the groups responsible for these attacks must be held accountable. Secretary Pompeo noted that America will not tolerate attacks and threats to American lives and will take additional action as necessary in self-defense,” it said.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said 33 Katyusha rockets were launched near a section of the Taji base which houses U.S.-led coalition troops. It said the military found seven rocket launchers and 24 unused rockets in the nearby Abu Izam area.

The Iraqi military said several Iraqi air defense servicemen were critically wounded. Two of the three wounded U.S. troops are seriously injured and are being treated at a military hospital in Baghdad, the Pentagon said.

Longstanding antagonism between the United States and Iran has mostly played out on Iraqi soil in recent months.

Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have regularly rocketed and shelled bases in Iraq which host U.S. forces and the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The United States has in turn conducted several strikes inside Iraq, killing top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrea Ricci)

‘Hit with a truck’ – How Iran’s missiles inflicted brain injury on U.S. troops

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

(Reuters) – In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body – in full armor – an inch or two off the floor.

Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “All is well!”

The next day was different.

“My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck,” Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar desert. “My stomach was grinding.”

Keltz, who said he had concussion symptoms for days, is among 109 soldiers diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries in the wake of last month’s attack, a figure that has steadily risen as more troops report symptoms and get medical screening.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen officials and soldiers and spoke with brain-injury specialists to assemble the most comprehensive account so far of the nature of the soldiers’ injuries and how they sustained them.

The slowly rising casualty count underscores the difficulty in detecting and treating what has become one of the most common injuries in the U.S. military during two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. troops face roadside bombs, rockets and mortars.

More than a week after the attack, on Jan. 16, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was made aware that soldiers had suffered brain injuries from the missiles, the Pentagon said. That day, the Pentagon reported that an unspecified number of troops were treated for concussive symptoms and 11 were flown to Kuwait and Germany for higher-level care.

On Jan. 22, Trump said that he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” prompting criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group that the president was underplaying the casualties from the attack.

“I think it was unfortunate to use those words,” said Republican Representative Richard Hudson, who represents Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg that includes the Army’s Special Operations Command.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

A DIFFERENT CLASS OF WOUNDS

The U.S. military has long treated brain injuries as a different class of wounds that do not require rapid reporting up the chain of command, unlike incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight.

Since 2000, nearly 414,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, according to Pentagon data. The number is likely higher because the Pentagon only counts as one injury cases where a soldier suffers brain trauma in multiple incidents.

U.S. troops operating drone flights appeared to have suffered the most brain injuries during the attack on al-Asad, said Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Garland, who was on the base at the time. Many worked near the air strip, he said. Like Specialist Keltz, who was manning a guard tower, the drone pilots had been assigned to watch for a possible ground attack.

“Those drone pilots, they’re the ones that took the brunt of the TBI cases,” said Garland, who as commander of Task Force Jazeera oversees more than 400 soldiers.

The number of troops diagnosed with brain injury from last month’s attack was expected to stabilize near the current count, one U.S. official said. Less than 10 were now being monitored with possible TBI symptoms, the official said.

The total U.S. military count, however, excludes civilian contractors on the base at the time, many of whom have since departed.

Some U.S. troops also suffered from anxiety-related symptoms after the attack, including sleeplessness and, in at least one case, a sustained high heart rate, according to interviews with soldiers and officials. However, they could not provide a specific number.

The Pentagon categorizes brain injuries as mild, moderate, severe or penetrating. The vast majority of injuries are classified as mild, as were all of the injuries reported from al-Asad.

STANDING GUARD

Garland, the commander, said he was taken aback when he learned of U.S. intelligence indicating that Iranian missiles would strike within hours. He immediately found a base map and started sizing up the best options to shelter his troops.

He recalled old bunkers on the base built during the era of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2003. But the bunkers wouldn’t hold everyone. Some would need to disperse, taking cover in armored vehicles driven away from targets.

Others in Garland’s unit — including Specialist Keltz –would need to stand guard to watch for additional attacks beyond the expected missiles.

Keltz said he and a fellow soldier were already manning a tower when First Sergeant Larry Jackson came to them, explaining the intelligence and giving them their orders.

“What I need you boys to do is to lay down on the ground when the impacts happen – and then I need you to jump right back up and man those guns,” Jackson said in an interview, recounting his instructions to Keltz and other soldiers at the base.

As the Iranian missiles streaked through the night sky toward the base, their engines glowed orange – like the ends of lit cigarettes, Garland said. The glow was all that Garland could see in the darkness before scrambling back into a bunker.

Then came the blasts. At least eleven missiles struck the base, destroying housing units made from shipping containers and other facilities.

“Every explosion I heard, I was thinking, OK, that’s a number of people that have just lost their lives,” he said.

But initial checks after the attack showed nobody was killed or obviously injured, despite massive devastation to the base. Word got back to Washington. Just before 6 a.m. in Baghdad, Trump tweeted an update: “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

On the ground at al-Asad, U.S. Army Major Robert Hales, a doctor who is deployed to al-Asad, defended the initial reports of no injuries.

“Everyone here did not have any outward physical injuries,” he said in an interview. “There were no lacerations. There’s no shrapnel wounds.”

Such “silent” injuries take time to manifest, he said.

Injury figures kept climbing in the weeks after the attack. What began as at least 11 cases grew to 34 about a week later.

On Jan. 22, Trump made his controversial comment, referring to the injuries as “headaches.” The Veterans of Foreign Wars demanded an apology for Trump’s “misguided remarks”.

A week later, on Jan. 28, the toll of brain injuries climbed to 50. In early February, Reuters was the first to report that the count had surpassed 100.

The brain injuries sustained in the Iranian missile attack are fundamentally different than those that have typically resulted from past attacks, brain-trauma specialists said.

That’s because the al-Asad bombing was more intense than typical quick-hit, single-explosion attacks: The explosions came in waves and lasted more than an hour.

When a roadside bomb goes off in Afghanistan, head wounds are often visible. In insurgent bomb blasts, shrapnel or other flying debris can cause brain injuries upon impact. But the damage from large pressure waves from a major blast – like the ones at al-Asad that Specialist Keltz felt – often take more time to diagnose.

Marilyn Kraus, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury program and concussion clinic at George Washington University, said troops may minimize or underreport their symptoms initially. Others may not show symptoms until much later in part because their injuries are initially masked by the adrenaline rush that comes with combat.

“Some of these things can fall into the cracks initially,” said Kraus, who previously served as medical director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Consult Section at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the short term, mild traumatic brain injury can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion, while longer-term effects can include chronic headaches, mood changes and dizziness, Kraus said. Repeated head injuries can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain degeneration disorder that some researchers have linked to suicidal thoughts, substance misuse and depression, she said.

Hales, the Army doctor, cited research within the past six months showing in animal models that signs of damage to the brain can increase in the weeks after a blast. At al-Asad, soldiers started showing symptoms such as headaches or a “foggy feeling” days after the attack, Hales said. The symptoms often persisted.

“That’s the reason why you saw a huge delay” in identifying the injuries, he said. “That prompted us to re-screen pretty much the whole population of al-Asad.”

(Stewart and Ali reported from Washington. Editing by Brian Thevenot and Jason Szep)

Exclusive: More than 100 U.S. troops diagnosed with brain injuries from Iran attack – officials

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is preparing to report a more than 50% jump in cases of traumatic brain injury stemming from Iran’s missile attack on a base in Iraq last month, U.S. officials told Reuters on Monday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement, said there were over 100 cases of TBI, up from the 64 previously reported last month.

The Pentagon declined to comment, but in the past had said to expect an increase in numbers in the weeks after the attack because symptoms can take time to manifest and troops can sometimes take longer to report them.

No U.S. troops were killed or faced immediate bodily injury when Iran fired missiles at the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

The missile attacks capped a spiral of violence that had started in late December. Both sides have refrained from further military escalation, but the mounting number of U.S. casualties could increase pressure on the Trump administration to respond, perhaps non-militarily.

Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that the service members suffering from traumatic brain injuries had been diagnosed with mild cases. He added the diagnosis could change as time went on.

Symptoms of concussive injuries include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light and nausea.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly said there has been no effort to minimize or delay information on concussive injuries. But the disclosures following Tehran’s attack has renewed questions over the U.S. military’s policy regarding how it internally reports suspected brain injuries and whether they are treated publicly with the same urgency as loss of limb or life.

U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to play down the brain injuries last month, saying he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things” following the attack, prompting criticism from lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group.

Various health and medical groups for years have been trying to raise awareness about the seriousness of brain injuries, including concussions.

Since 2000, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, according to Pentagon data.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)

‘No, No America’: Iraq protesters demand expulsion of U.S. troops

By John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite fears of violence following a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month. His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the U.S. embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.

Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.

“We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district controlled by Sadr’s followers.

“We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.

The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.

Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.

Washington’s killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.

It has temporarily united rival Shi’ite groups in opposition to the presence of U.S. troops – a rallying cry that critics say aims simply to refocus the street and kill the momentum of the anti-establishment protests that challenge their grip on power.

Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.

The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.

Parliament urged the government to eject U.S. troops after the killing of Soleimani, but Sunni and Kurdish politicians boycotted the session, the first time lawmakers have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines since the defeat of IS.

Sunnis and Kurds generally oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seeing them as crucial in fighting against IS remnants and a buffer against dominance of Iran.

“DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER”

U.S.-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil has further fractured Iraqi politics and distracted leaders from forming a new government.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.

“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected … and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” said the cleric, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Iraqi President Barham Salih posted a photo of Friday’s march on Twitter and wrote that Iraqis deserved a “fully sovereign state that serves its people.”

Under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said he would quit in November, security forces and unidentified gunmen believed to be linked to powerful Iran-backed militias killed nearly 450 anti-establishment protesters.

Marchers on Friday wore Iraqi flags and symbolic white robes indicating they were willing to die for Iraq while others sat looking out over the square from half finished buildings, holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”.

Anti-American marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, witnesses said.

The march did not head as initially feared towards U.S. Embassy, the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound.

Many marchers boarded buses in the early afternoon to head home. A smaller number shuffled along towards Tahrir Square.

Outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a sign read “Warning. Do not cross this barrier, we will use pre-emptive measures against any attempt to cross”.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Maclean)