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Iraqi Troops React To Trump Comment Regarding Iran


Exactly what did President Trump mean with a remark about U.S. troops in Iraq? The president gave a long interview to CBS over the weekend. He may be pushing to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He said he is not, though, pushing troops to get out of Iraq at least in part because of the country next door - Iran. He said he does not plan to invade Iran from Iraq, but he wants U.S. forces to watch Iran. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad. Hi there, Jane.


INSKEEP: What would the logic be of U.S. troops in Iraq being there to watch Iran?

ARRAF: Well, that's a great question. So I suppose he's referring to the fact that Iran is Iraq's neighbor. Although, the base that he's talking about - the big expensive base, as he puts it, which happens to be an Iraqi base, by the way, with American forces inside it - is closer to Syria. But I suppose it's proximity. Although, it doesn't really help watch Iran because the watching mostly that the U.S. and others do, of course, is signal intelligence. It's satellite images. That does not require a base of that kind. So that...

INSKEEP: And we may have lost Jane Arraf there. We'll see if she comes back in the next few seconds. Jane, you're back. I think we got most of your thought in. You're saying that it's hard to see how U.S. troops on the ground would be used to watch Iran. You would do that with other assets. But this is what the president said in this interview. What do Iraqis think now that that thought has been expressed outloud?

ARRAF: OK, so President Trump's comment about that probably couldn't have come at a worse time 'cause there's already tension here about U.S. forces and what, in fact, they're doing here. Now, what they're doing, according to the agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, is they're helping Iraqi forces fight terrorism. So the president of Iraq was speaking at a forum this morning in Baghdad, and he said that's not what U.S. forces would be used for; they're here to back up Iraqi forces. And he said they're going to explore how many forces there are here, what they're actually doing, whether they're fulfilling their mandate. And the - I spoke after the forum to the head of one of the major militias here who said that they were going to have a vote in parliament. And when we're talking militias, they're also into politics - so vote in parliament; possible move to get rid of U.S. troops. And then the militia leader said, and if the U.S. doesn't do that, then we have ways to make them leave. Now, we don't think it will come to that, but it's a measure of the anger here over this.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember some history, Jane Arraf. U.S. troops left Iraq once before in 2011. The Obama administration didn't seem to mind that much at the time. There was some Iraqi resistance to keeping them also, but things didn't work out very well. The Islamic State took over a large part of the country in the years after that. Are Iraqis serious about the possibility of letting U.S. troops go away again?

ARRAF: They are absolutely serious. Having said that, a lot of the Iraqi politicians, the Iraqi government, feels the need for them to stay. The Iraqi military for the most part wants them to stay. You know - they're advising soldiers, and the Iraqi army still has not really come back to what it was. So there is a significant part of Iraq that recognizes, they say, that there is a need for them. But the popular sentiment really is there to get American forces out. And it's a sentiment that's growing and, in part, fueled by comments like those of President Trump.

INSKEEP: Jane Arraf. NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad, thanks so much.

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

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