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Rising Mideast tensions could force U.S. out of Iraq

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The United States currently has an estimated 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq. That's according to the Associated Press. But the two countries are in talks over how long those troops will stay. This is just one of the repercussions of the current conflict in the Middle East and a recent escalation in attacks between the U.S. and militias backed by Iran. NPR's Jane Arraf sent us this report from Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This was the scene in Baghdad from a funeral for a senior commander of the most powerful Iran-backed militia here, assassinated in the street in a U.S. drone strike.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARRAF: Hundreds of fighters crowded the streets. A dozen of them carried the coffin of Abu Baqir Al-Saadi, a commander of Kataib Hezbollah, the Party of God Brigades, draped in a flag and covered with plastic flowers.

This feels like it might be a turning point because this is not something that Kataib Hezbollah will forget. This funeral ceremony for a single man was more elaborate than that for 17 of their fighters killed on a base near Syria recently.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: A militia speaker, Sheikh Abu Talib Al-Saidi, praised the commander as a resistance fighter, saying he was involved in 25% of more than 200 attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets.

SHEIKH ABU TALIB AL-SAIDI: (Through interpreter) Today, thanks to God Almighty and with the blessings of the Islamic resistance in Iraq and everyone for this brave, heroic and holy stance with the people of Gaza.

ARRAF: Two weeks ago, a militia attack on a U.S. base in Jordan killed three U.S. service people. The U.S. says it bore the fingerprints of Kataib Hezbollah. It killed Al-Saadi in a drone strike in retaliation.

QASIM AL-ARAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Iraq's national security adviser, Qasim al-Araji, is one of the mourners. He tells us that strike made clear the need to disband the U.S.-led military coalition.

AL-ARAJI: (Through interpreter) This incident will reinforce the necessity of ending the international coalition's mission. I believe that one year is sufficient for the coalition forces to leave Iraq.

ARRAF: While Al-Saadi was attacking the U.S., a close ally of Iraq, here's the complication - as al-Araji notes, the militia he belonged to, one that fought the militant Sunni group ISIS, is now part of Iraq's official security forces.

AL-ARAJI: (Through interpreter) The man is a fighter and a leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces. The Popular Mobilization Forces are a national institution, and they are part of the security system. So this is a targeting of the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.

ARRAF: The Kataib Hezbollah spokesman, Mohammed Mohi, says the U.S. will pay a heavy price.

MOHAMMED MOHI: (Through interpreter) He is one of our major leaders that the United States dared to target. God willing, we will confront the United States and not only expel it from Iraq, but the entire region as well.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARRAF: Before the assassination, Kataib Hezbollah said it would suspend attacks on the U.S. in deference to the Iraqi government. That all changed after the drone strike. Kataib Hezbollah is part of a coalition of mostly Iran-backed Shia militias targeting the U.S. and Israel. They're loosely connected to groups in other countries, like Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon...

HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: ...Whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is fighting Israel across the Lebanese border. In Baghdad, we sat down with the spokesman for one of the other militias in the coalition, Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. For Sheikh Kadhim al-Fartousi, this is a holy fight. Al-Fartousi says under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraqis were dragged into devastating wars with Iran and over Kuwait.

SHEIKH KADHIM AL-FARTOUSI: (Through interpreter) Those wars were imposed on Iraq, but today the Iraqis are choosing this war. This war confirms that they belong to their homeland and to Iraqi sovereignty, and also confirms their belonging to the Arab and Islamic people in support of Palestine and Gaza.

ARRAF: But in the streets and the glitzy cafes springing up in Baghdad, Iraqis are not choosing war. Most people not involved in militias are just trying to live their lives, find jobs, study, raise children in what they hope will eventually be a peaceful and prosperous country. It's a far cry from the chants of - death to America and death to Israel - at the militia events. It was mostly young fighters killed in the U.S. strike on an Iraqi militia base near the Syrian border, the first of the U.S. retaliatory strikes after the attack on its base in Jordan. Iraqi officials say militia leaders have left for Iran. Iraq's foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, tells us it's a difficult atmosphere to hold discussions on U.S. forces.

FUAD HUSSEIN: I mean, if there will be attacks and counterattacks, then it will be difficult to negotiate. We cannot negotiate through bullets.

ARRAF: The U.S. believes there should be a smaller U.S. military presence here, but still a presence. Hussein says there's a more basic question.

F HUSSEIN: Which kind of relationship do we want with the American? For Iraqis, we are really caught between an ally, which is the American, and a neighbor, which is the Iranian, and they are fighting each other on our soil. So this is very strange.

ARRAF: Hussein canceled meetings with Iranian officials after Iran attacked a private home in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, claiming without proof it was an Israeli intelligence base. He says it's because Iran is afraid to attack Israel directly.

F HUSSEIN: They must stop these kinds of attacks because they know that what they are talking about is baseless. But they are attacking us. If it is an attack against Israel, Israel is somewhere else. It's not in Iraq.

ARRAF: The foreign minister, who is Kurdish, says since most Kurdish and Sunni parties want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq, any decision has to be a joint one. Twenty-one years ago, the U.S. invaded this country. It toppled Saddam Hussein but created a security vacuum. Following a civil war and then the war against the Sunni militant group ISIS, Iraq, while still volatile, has become a lot calmer in the last five years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: During a religious commemoration in Baghdad last week, millions of pilgrims walked to the shrine of a Shia imam - ceremonies banned under Saddam and later bombed by militant Sunni groups during the sectarian war. These pilgrims are walking in safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)

ARRAF: In the air, an Iraqi military helicopter hung with a huge religious banner keeps watch. The Shia, a majority in Iraq, are grateful for the religious freedom, but most don't want the complications of having U.S. forces here.

QAID HASSAN HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: An off-duty policeman, Qaid Hassan Hussein, is near a gas burner, stirring a huge pot of rice to help feed the pilgrims.

Q HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "A question," he says.

Q HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He's saying that if you're in your house and a stranger comes, and he wants to enter and tell you who comes in and out, would you accept that?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: Two decades on, for many Iraqis, the U.S. is not just a stranger at the door, but a threatening one. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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