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The State Of Play In Iraq The Day After Iranian Missile Attacks On U.S. Troops


In Iraq, President Trump's speech seems to have eased imminent fears of a military escalation after the Iranian rocket attack on U.S. forces. But a major Iranian-backed militia is saying the retaliation isn't over yet. And that's not the only threat that remains. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad once again.

Hi, Jane.


SHAPIRO: Was there much reaction in Baghdad to the president's speech today?

ARRAF: Well, there was no official reaction from the Iraqi government, but Iraqi analysts took the president's comments as an attempt to de-escalate this rather than what they had really feared, which was that he would add fuel to the fire. We have to say, it was quite an unusual attack - more than a dozen rockets, and they killed no one. That wasn't the spin, though, in Iran, where state media said that 80 U.S. soldiers were dead. There's absolutely no indication that's true. Indications are there were no Iraqi or U.S. casualties. But most people saw that as a way for Iran to say it was avenging Soleimani's death while not actually prompting retaliation.

But, you know, in the streets, people are even more skeptical. We spoke to a flower shop owner, Bashir Abbas (ph). And he said he thought this was all just theater, that the attack itself was prearranged.

BASHIR ABBAS: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He's saying basically that the U.S. and Iran agreed to this, and the only targets were the Iraqis since they want to turn Iraq into a battlefield. And, in fact, he says, this is a cold war. And that's the way a lot of people feel.

SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, there are still Iraqi militias backed by Iran. And the U.S. blames them for a rocket attack that killed an American contractor a couple of weeks ago. How do they fit into the situation today?

ARRAF: They're a really big player in this. There are more than 30 different groups. They were formed to fight ISIS in 2014, and now they're mostly part of Iraqi security forces. But a lot of them do not answer to the Iraqi government, and some of them actually answer to Iran. There are two big Iranian-backed militias in particular. One of them has said this is not the end of the retribution, the retaliation for the death of not just Soleimani, but an Iraqi paramilitary leader. But there are a couple of other ones that are seemingly trying to calm things down.

SHAPIRO: Beyond fears about Iran and militias, there is ISIS, which President Trump says is 100% destroyed. Is that true?

ARRAF: Yeah, not quite. So their territory is almost 100% destroyed. The caliphate was defeated, but ISIS is resurging. And it's a concern of U.S. military leaders, of Iraqi military leaders, and a bigger concern because if U.S. troops do leave and the coalition forces leave with them, other countries leave with them, that leaves a real lack of things like air support, surveillance, intel. And it could mean that ISIS could have a resurgence in areas it had been kicked out of.

SHAPIRO: And finally, there was this vote in Iraq's Parliament to expel U.S. troops, which the United States says it is going to ignore. What's the status of that?

ARRAF: That one is all up for discussion over the next few weeks because a lot of these parties that wanted U.S. troops gone are digging in, but other ones are saying, look; see what happened? If U.S. forces leave, we'll be even more beholden to Iran, and things could slip even further.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jane Arraf covering every new development in Baghdad.

Thank you very much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: As Jane mentioned, people are watching what Iraqi militias will do. And tonight, two small rockets hit near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. No injuries have been reported.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "AZALEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.