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Anti-American Faction Gains Strength Among Iraqi Politicians

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The past few days of violence in Iraq have highlighted a reality of how President Trump's administration views the Persian Gulf region. The United States sees Iraq as a battleground in its conflict with neighboring Iran. Now, this view is not new. President Trump said it out loud early last year explaining why he wanted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Whoa, that's news. You're keeping troops in Iraq because you want to be able to strike in Iran?

TRUMP: No - because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch.

INSKEEP: In recent days, those troops became targets for mortar attacks. U.S. warplanes then struck an Iran-backed militia that was blamed for the mortar attacks. Supporters of the militia then attacked the United States Embassy in Baghdad. Suddenly, some Iraqi politicians are talking of throwing out U.S. troops that the president wanted to keep in. What is happening here?

Vali Nasr is a Mideast scholar and a former State Department policy adviser to President Obama, and he's in our studios. Welcome back to the program.

VALI NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What makes Iraq a place where the U.S. and Iran would clash?

NASR: Well, they have been competing for Iraq ever since the American invasion of Iraq...

INSKEEP: In 2003.

NASR: ...In 2003 that basically took away the Sunni-dominated autocracy in Iraq. It empowered the majority-Shia population, which has cultural, religious, historical and social ties to Iran. Many of the leaders of Iraq actually had spent exile time in Iran. And over the past two decades, we've had a growing people-to-people relationship, economic relationship, political relationship. And the current Iraqi government is uncertain about American commitment. It's sitting in a sea of hostile Sunni powers who don't like a Shia-dominated government in Iraq. And as much as Iraqis are not happy with Iranian meddling in the region, still Iran is the one country they rely on.

INSKEEP: You just said the thing about Iraqis unhappy with Iranian meddling. You traced some history where Iran has reasserted more and more influence inside Iraq. Weren't there mass protests - up until the other day - in Iraq against Iranian influence, effectively on the U.S. side of the argument?

NASR: Absolutely. I mean, those were nationalist sentiments against Iranian meddling in Iraq. And now with attacking a base in Iraq, killing Iraqis without consulting the government of Iraq - without even letting know the government of Iraq that we - that the United States was going to hit this base, the United States has now inflamed Iraqi nationalism against itself. It's diverted attention from Iranian meddling in Iraq to American behavior in Iraq. And in a way, this is a self-inflicted wound by President Trump. He's relieved pressure on Iran and diverted attention from the most serious crisis Iran has been facing in Iraq since 2003.

INSKEEP: I want to ask if the blowback is really that bad. There were these protesters outside the embassy. They finally agreed to take down their camp and move away in exchange for an Iraqi promise to try to legislate the United States out of the country. They'd go for a law that would throw U.S. troops out of the country. But could that really happen? Are Iraqis really that angry that they would do that?

NASR: It probably will not happen, but something else has happened. Iraq is, right now, in the middle of trying to form a new government, choose a new prime minister. There's political jockeying in the country. And in the midst of that, the anti-American faction and the militias and their political backers have gained strength. They've gained leverage. And in a way, this has changed the dynamic within Iraq itself. We don't know who's going to succeed the current prime minister. But the United States' ability to decide that has now been significantly diminished.

And U.S. is now on the defensive to argue why it should be in the country. It's already - and also, the Iranians and their backers and Iraqi politicians have learned that now they can bully the United States. They can show up at the embassy anytime now. Next time they can go further, and they can provoke the Marines or the airborne divisions that we're sending to Iraq to actually shoot at demonstrators - and escalate this to something much bigger. So in a way, this entire episode has gone away. But this is not a victory for the United States.

INSKEEP: But I'm going back through the sequence again. Iran-backed militia attacks Americans. The U.S. responds, leads to these protests. Did the U.S. have any choice, really? I mean, Americans were being attacked.

NASR: Well, you could say basically Iran put a banana peel in front of the United States and President Trump put his foot right on it. But he could have handled this a bit better. He could have consulted the Iraqi government. President Trump called the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE before the attack but not the Iraqi prime minister. So the Iraqis were kept in the dark. He could have chosen to hit Iran directly rather than hitting the Iranian-backed militia. Anytime the United States carries out a unilateral action in another country killing civilians in that - killing citizens of that country, it's going to be problematic.

INSKEEP: Peter Beinart, who's an analyst who was writing in The Atlantic yesterday, observed that President Trump has, in Beinart's view, ruled out diplomacy with Iran. President Trump does say he wants to talk to Iran but with extreme, extreme demands. So diplomacy isn't going to happen right now. The alternative to diplomacy is war. President Trump doesn't want that either - doesn't want another Mideast war. Beinart argues that the third alternative that's left - the only thing that's left is a series of messy humiliations, which is how he sees these events in Iraq. Is that true?

NASR: Well, even if we didn't call it humiliations, because the United States doesn't have a clear strategy, the initiative is now in Iran's hands. The Iranians are provoking the United States, putting pressures of their own in - asking the United States that you either come to the table with lesser demands and we can negotiate or you have to risk confrontation. The U.S. doesn't want to do either and, as a result, has lost the initiative to Iran. And Iranians actually have no incentive right now to behave any other way. And even in fact, coming January 6 - in a week's time, the Iranians will be taking the next step in moving away from their nuclear deal, which will put even more pressure on the U.S.

INSKEEP: Another step after the U.S. withdrew from that deal. Vali Nasr, thanks so much.

NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a Mideast scholar and former adviser to President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.