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As U.S. Troops Leave Syria, Allies Talk To Iraq About ISIS Fight


What does a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria mean for neighboring Iraq? It is a big question. Just a few years ago, ISIS spread out of its base in Syria to capture much of northern Iraq. Iraqis have largely recovered their territory, but they do not want ISIS to regroup now that President Trump has ordered U.S. forces to leave. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad. Hi there, Jane.


INSKEEP: How does the Syria withdrawal, whenever it's completed, affect Iraq?

ARRAF: Well, you know, there's some concern here because even though ISIS was actually driven out of a third of Iraq, which is a huge accomplishment - accomplished at great cost - they're still there along the border. So if the U.S. is pulling out troops from Syria, it means that the push against ISIS has to come from somewhere. And there's a lot of talk here among diplomats, among military people that that's going to have to be based at least partly in Iraq, where there are U.S. troops at that base in Al Anbar where President Trump visited at Christmas and where they're already launching attacks across the border in conjunction with the Syrian government, actually.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a good point. U.S. troops may be leaving Syria, but they're still based in Iraq - a few thousand of them, anyway. So what are Iraqis thinking about this situation?

ARRAF: So on the Iraqi side, they're kind of scrambling a bit, as are a lot of the Iraqi allies. So it's been a very busy week here at the presidential palace, in the prime minister's office. You know, Iraq, for a long time, was kind of isolated from the Sunni Arab world. But now there's been a parade of visitors. There's been Jordan's King Abdullah - first time here in 11 years - the French foreign minister, who said he was surprised at the pullout talk. And notably, there has been Iran - the Iranian foreign minister here - because U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo came. And his big preoccupation, of course, is Iran - containing Iran.


ARRAF: That's a tough balancing act.

INSKEEP: Well, now, this is interesting. Pompeo is very focused on Iran and - as is President Trump. Of course, Iraq is influenced by Iran. Were Iraqis reassured at all when Secretary of State Pompeo came to say the U.S. is still with them?

ARRAF: Reassured - I'm not quite sure. You know, they understand the political realities in the U.S. But it is tough. I spoke with the Iraqi presidential spokesman here, Ambassador Lukman Faily, this morning. And here's what he had to say.

LUKMAN FAILY: We have the security and the clear statement by the government that the intelligence, security, cooperation, training with the United States need to continue. But at the same time, we cannot as a government continue just having this roller-coaster relationship based on this nuclear deal with Iran. It needs to be a bit more predictable for us.

INSKEEP: Roller-coaster relationship.

ARRAF: Yeah. So what he's referring to there is there - you know, there's an ongoing push here among some political parties to get rid of the U.S. troops in Iraq. The prime minister yesterday here said there were 6,000 of them still here. But at the same time, Iraq needs those troops, and it's trying to balance relations with Iran. Iran is its biggest neighbor and a big trading partner. So thus, the roller-coaster reference oh the roller coaster because the United States is trying to isolate Iran. The United States is allied with Iraq. Iraq has a relationship with Iran. So you go up. You go down. It's awkward.

ARRAF: You got it.

INSKEEP: Jane, thanks for the update.

ARRAF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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