- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2016

The Obama administration said Monday it received assurances from the Iraqi government that security forces in Baghdad will protect U.S. diplomatic staff in the wake of Shiite protesters breaching the walls of the famed “Green Zone” in the heart of the city.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration sought the guarantees of safety for U.S. personnel after hundreds of the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the walls of the supposedly secure zone and occupied the parliament building in what they said was a protest against stalled reforms and a paralyzed central government.

“It’s a pretty chaotic situation there,” Mr. Earnest said. “We have received assurances from the Iraqi government and from Iraqi security forces” to protect U.S. Embassy personnel.

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State Department spokesman John Kirby said there was no “specific danger posed” to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t watching these things with an eye towards security. We always do,” he said.

Pentagon officials said there was no evidence the demonstrators were targeting American military or diplomatic installations inside the Green Zone, Iraq’s de facto government center and home to a majority of the foreign embassies in the country, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday.

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“This is domestic politics,” Capt. Davis said regarding the ongoing political unrest in Baghdad.

The administration also insisted that the fresh instability in Baghdad is having no impact on the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State terrorist group and the efforts to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul. Mr. Earnest said the coalition carried out 59 airstrikes and six artillery strikes against Islamic State targets in northern Iraq and the Anbar province last weekend.

“And the ongoing effort to offer training, advice and assistance to Iraqi forces has continued unabated,” he said.

Still, the alarming protest by the cleric and his followers in the Green Zone came barely 48 hours after a surprise visit from Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who was trying to encourage Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and others to complete forming a new central government. The demonstrators eventually left the Green Zone at the urging of the cleric, who said they would return to the central district on Friday.

Mr. Earnest said the vice president’s visit “underscores the challenges” that Mr. al-Abadi is facing.

Also on Monday, an explosives-laden car detonated in the Iraqi capital, killing at least 18 Shiite pilgrims who were commemorating the anniversary of the death of a revered imam. The Sunni-based Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack but Iraqi officials denied it.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Monday the U.S. still supports Mr. al-Abadi in his efforts to form an inclusive government and wage an coordinated military fight against the extremists.

“He seems to be in a very strong position. Obviously we support him strongly because of what he stands for,” Mr. Carter told reporters traveling with him shortly before landing in Germany.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of followers of Mr. al-Sadr broke into parliament on Saturday, waving Iraqi flags, ransacking rooms and sitting at lawmakers’ desk while gesturing at cameras that captured the scene.

“The cowards ran away,” they chanted, referring to parliament members who had gathered there earlier. Mr. al-Abadi had been scheduled to announce a new Cabinet on Saturday but didn’t because of lack of a quorum.

Mr. al-Sadr vehemently opposed the United States occupation of Iraq and in the mid-2000s urged his Mahdi Army militia to attack American troops. His fighters were responsible for some of the deadliest days of the war. But Shiite leaders turned against him and in 2007 he fled to Iran. He returned to Iraq in 2011 and wields significant influence in Baghdad.

Carlo Munoz contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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