A Look At U.S. Interests In Iraq

Dec 31, 2019
Originally published on December 31, 2019 5:17 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two dramatic developments in Iraq now. They started Friday with a rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor. Then came American airstrikes retaliating against the Iranian-backed militia the U.S. blames for that attack. Which brings us to today, when supporters of that militia battered their way into a gatehouse at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. They set fires. They threw stones. And they chanted death to America. All signs of renewed turmoil in Iraq, and together they raise a larger question rarely discussed by the Trump administration.

What are the U.S. interests in Iraq today? Well, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre to answer that question for us. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Would you start with just a little more detail please on what exactly happened at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad?

MYRE: Right. So this was carried out by members and supporters of Khattab Hezbollah (ph). This is an Iraqi militia group, but it's closely tied to Iran. And they rampaged past this security gate and this reception area for these violent protests that we've we've seen video of. Now, they didn't breach the main compound that has these high walls and the barbed wire. This is the largest, most expensive U.S. Embassy in the world, heavily fortified. It's like a campus with office buildings and dorms. The ambassador not only works there, he lives there. And the U.S. is sending in additional Marines and put up some Apache helicopters to ward off any more potential attacks.

KELLY: Now, I want to be clear on something, which is this is not connected to the protests that we have been reporting on that have been underway in Iraq for months now. This is separate. Is that right?

MYRE: Really, yes, a different group, yes.

KELLY: OK. And so the people who are - who have been protesting in those ongoing street protests - these were ordinary Iraqis. I mean, just settle in this moment of this long history of U.S. engagement in Iraq.

MYRE: Right. I mean, you can - the U.S. forces went into Kuwait to drive out Iraqi forces. That was 1991, first time in more than two centuries that the U.S. had ever fought a war in the Middle East. But now the U.S. military has been engaged in Iraq virtually nonstop for going on 30 years. And the aims keep evolving. It was first to contain Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Then it was to remove him and democratize the broader Middle East, and then quash one insurgency and then to fight ISIS. So here we are today, U.S. diplomats and security personnel hunkered down at the U.S. Embassy in the heart of Baghdad.

I spoke with Andrew Bacevich. He's a retired Army colonel. He served in that first Gulf War in '91. He later lost his son fighting in Iraq. He's now the president of the Quincy Institute. And he argues that in Iraq, the U.S. has repeatedly chosen military action to its own detriment.

ANDREW BACEVICH: The results are completely negative. So it's time to try something different. I do believe that if the parties in the region come to the conclusion that the United States is not going to police the region from now until the end of time, that that opens up other possibilities.

KELLY: So, Greg Myre, how does that fit in with the Trump administration's approach, the current approach? And how might that approach change given these dramatic events of the past week?

MYRE: Well, no sign yet. So we don't know what might change or might not happen. But we still have about 5,000 U.S. troops in addition to contractors there. And this is to prevent primarily, I think, a resurgence of ISIS 2.0. And on that front, it's been pretty successful. But in terms of stabilizing Iraq politically or limiting Iranian influence, those goals really haven't been met. And Trump has shown really very little interest in trying to engage with the Iraqi leadership.

KELLY: That is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.