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U.S. Protests Iraq's Call To Withdraw American Troops


We're going to go to Baghdad now because the fallout from the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is being felt in Iraq. The back-and-forth continues over the U.S. military's presence there. The parliament and prime minister recommended U.S. troops leave, and the prime minister even asked the U.S. for a withdrawal plan. But in Washington, U.S. officials have indicated they are not leaving, and they seem to be leaning heavily on Iraq to allow troops to stay. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Baghdad with the latest.

Jane, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So what are you hearing from the U.S. military on this?

ARRAF: So this was kind of the clearest reiteration of this we've heard, and it was from a briefing this evening by a senior coalition military official. He was very blunt. He said, we have received no new mission, which means they're not beginning a pullout, as the Iraqi prime minister has clearly requested them to. In fact, the military here still consider themselves on the same mission in Iraq - to help the Iraqi forces fight ISIS and to train Iraqi soldiers.

Those operations, though, were suspended after the U.S. killed Soleimani and an Iraqi commander. But this military official - he spoke to a small group of reporters - says they're currently reviewing whether it's safe enough to resume some of their operations.

MARTIN: What was the danger that made the U.S.-led coalition halt its operations? Do we know?

ARRAF: The American troops are here under an agreement with the Iraqi government, and it's at the invitation of the Iraqis. And under this agreement, Iraq is responsible for protecting U.S. forces here. That became clear to the U.S. military that that was not happening. Either Iraq was unwilling or incapable of protecting them with so many Iran-backed militias here.

And this evening, I drove by the U.S. Embassy, and you can see these charred, burned windows where members of the - of Iran-backed militia stormed the embassy on December 31. There's anti-American graffiti that's still being wiped off the walls.

So things have been tense for quite a long time. The tension included the U.S. attacking militia bases in Iraq and Syria, killing Iraqis. But before that, the U.S. military had asked the Iraqi government to rein them in and never got a response.

MARTIN: Are there any more details on the Iranian strike that Iran said was retaliation for the U.S. drone attack?

ARRAF: The speculation was that Iran deliberately avoided targeting buildings where it would kill anyone, but coalition officials basically say that's nonsense. They say they received a few minutes' warning, and they say that was enough to get everyone under cover. Otherwise, they say, there would have been casualties because the buildings targeted including a dining facility that normally would have been open at that time had they not been on high alert already.

MARTIN: So where does all this leave the Iraqi prime minister and his demand that the U.S. start drawing up withdrawal plans?

ARRAF: So that's a really tricky one because the prime minister is insisting on this. And, in fact, if he wants to keep his job and keep the backing of Iran, he might have to insist on it. But on the other side, U.S. officials are making quite a few threats here, and one of them seems to be that the U.S. could prevent Iraq from accessing the dollars it holds at the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. That would essentially cripple the Iraqi currency and its financial system. So there's a lot of pressure on the Iraqi prime minister to roll back this opposition, but he's a caretaker prime minister and not that strong. So we're going to have to see how it plays out politically.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Jane Arraf joining us from Baghdad.

Jane, thank you so much for joining us.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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