How the U.S. military is factoring into expanding conflict in the Middle East
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Beyond the Israel-Hamas war, conflict in the Middle East is expanding. That includes in Iraq. U.S. forces there have been attacked by Iran-backed militias, and the Iraqi government is under political pressure to expel the U.S. military. What does this mean for troops in the region? Well, we're joined by NPR's Jane Arraf in Amman, Jordan, and NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in the studio. Good to have you both here.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Jane, let's start with you. The U.S. has 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq. Why is Iraq's prime minister saying that he plans to end the U.S. presence in the country?
ARRAF: If it were up to the prime minister, it's likely he wouldn't. He and Iraqi military leaders have made clear that they still value U.S. forces with help in fighting ISIS and with extremely useful U.S. tools and assets like air support and signal-intelligence gathering and analysis. But it's looking as if he won't be able to hold off political pressure. That's after a series of U.S. airstrikes, retaliation for attacks on U.S. bases. That retaliation was against Iran-backed militias that are actually part of Iraq's official security forces. Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani came to power because Iran, and the militias it supports, supported him. So in between anger over the U.S. role in supplying weapons for the war in Gaza to Israel and anger over U.S. breaches of Iraqi sovereignty, it's looking as if he won't have much choice.
SHAPIRO: Tom, can you explain what 2,500 U.S. troops are doing in Iraq? I was actually surprised at how large that number is.
BOWMAN: Well, Ari, first, a little background - U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, returned in 2014, first fighting ISIS with Iraqi forces. And now they're not in combat, but assisting Iraqis in going after the remnants of ISIS. Now, many of the U.S. troops are stationed in northern Iraq in Erbil, and those troops also support the anti-ISIS fight next door in Syria. The U.S. also provides hundreds of millions of dollars to Iraq in aid, government development, humanitarian assistance, demining efforts and military sales - get this, more than $16 billion - everything from F-16 aircraft to helicopters and radar, small arms. In addition, the U.S. has provided Iraq with excess defense equipment over the recent years - 300 large armored vehicles, Humvees, helicopters, body armor - all of which contributed to the ISIS fight, so, really, massive amounts of aid and sales.
SHAPIRO: Which could be on its way out. Jane, what is the timeline here? Iraq's prime minister pledged to set up a committee to begin the process of the U.S. pullout. When and how is this likely to happen?
ARRAF: An adviser to the Iraqi prime minister said today the aim is to come up with what he called a specific and clear timetable for the gradual reduction of the U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq and to an end to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS mission. The government spokesman, Bassem al-Awadi, told Iraqi state TV viewers that Sudan had repeatedly made clear that Iraq's stability required ending the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Let's listen.
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BASSEM AL-AWADI: He literally said that ending the mission of the international coalition in Iraq is necessary for Iraq. He used the term necessity. And I assure you that when the prime minister uses a term, he means it.
ARRAF: And if there's any doubt, that segment was called Ending the Coalition Mission in Iraq. As Tom mentioned, the U.S. military pulled out almost completely and then came back at the invitation of the Iraqi government to help fight ISIS. But that invitation can essentially be withdrawn whenever Iraq wants. But practically speaking, there are lots of details to iron out, and the process is expected to take months.
BOWMAN: Now, Iraqi officials say, we want the U.S. forces to leave. That's what these talks are about. That's not how the U.S. sees it, Ari. We just had a background call today with senior Pentagon and State Department officials. They said the talks are not about a withdrawal of U.S. troops. They said it's about shaping the future of the U.S. military presence. That presence will be determined, they say, by the strength of ISIS, the capability of Iraqi forces. So it seems like we have a disconnect here.
SHAPIRO: This obviously comes in the context of the Israel-Hamas war and fears of a growing regional conflict involving Lebanon, Yemen and more. Tom, where's the biggest threat to U.S. forces in the region right now, and is the danger getting worse?
BOWMAN: Clearly, the biggest threat to U.S. forces is right in Iraq with these militia groups - again, 2,500 troops and Iraqi bases that are increasingly under more threat since the Israeli-Hamas war, more than 140 attacks by Iranian-backed militia groups in both Iraq and Syria. Now, just recently, we've seen some U.S. troops wounded - three at that base in northern Iraq at Erbil, one seriously wounded with a head injury and sent back to the U.S. And just this week, there was one militia attack with missiles and rockets at Al-Asad Air Base, west of Baghdad, two U.S. service members slightly wounded with concussions. The U.S., of course, responded with strikes on militia facilities in Baghdad and western Iraq. So we've seen these attacks ramp up. The U.S. responds with airstrikes. And all this, Ari, will likely get worse. And that, of course, will put more pressure on the Iraqi government on this issue of U.S. troop presence.
SHAPIRO: Beyond the government, the militias, the troops, Jane, how do typical Iraqi civilians feel about the U.S. presence? Do they want the Americans to leave?
ARRAF: You know, Ari, Iraqis are facing so many problems - rampant corruption, government dysfunction. For most Iraqis, the U.S. presence isn't really something they think about a lot. The soldiers are mostly on their bases, and most young Iraqis have never even seen a U.S. soldier. So particularly after the defeat of ISIS, it's pretty much a political issue and pretty much an Iranian one. But having said that, the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad four years ago was a game changer. Iraqis do not appreciate other countries killing people on their soil. And then we can't separate the war in Gaza. Iraq doesn't recognize the state of Israel, and there's a lot of solidarity there for the Palestinians, as well as anger with the U.S. government and the military over arming Israel.
SHAPIRO: And, Tom, what are you hearing from Pentagon officials? Are military leaders nervous about Iraqis saying they want the U.S. to leave?
BOWMAN: Well, no one appears to be nervous yet, Ari. U.S. officials keep saying the Iraqi government wants the U.S. troops to stay to focus on ISIS, despite the outrage from the Iraqis about the airstrikes. And also, again, there's that substantial military relationship, both providing arms, selling arms. But again, if the attacks on U.S. forces continue and the U.S. responds with more and more airstrikes, that political headache for the Iraqi government will only get worse with more calls for all U.S. forces to leave.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR's Jane Arraf in Jordan. Thank you both.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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