RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It has been almost 16 years since the United States invaded Iraq under the mistaken claim that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi support for U.S. troops has vacillated over the years, but the assassination of Iran's General Qassem Soleimani has provoked a dramatic move. Iraq's Parliament voted Sunday to expel U.S. forces from the country. Major political figures in Iraq are calling for further measures, including closing down the U.S. Embassy.
NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad. Jane, just explain what happened in Parliament and the consequences of this.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, the consequences are huge. Now, this isn't legally binding, but it seems to put U.S. forces on an almost inevitable course to withdraw. A lot of this was set in motion by the prime minister's address to Parliament in which he thanked the U.S. troops for fighting ISIS with them but said, basically, the U.S. had been breaching Iraqi sovereignty. He said, before this happened, President Trump had reached out to him to ask him to mediate with Iran.
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ADIL ABDUL-MAHDI: (Through translator) This culminated in a constructive call from U.S. President Donald Trump calling on Iraq to play a mediating role for the truce with Iran, given that the two sides state that they do not want war. Let history record, I was supposed to meet General Soleimani at 8 a.m. the day he was killed because he was holding a letter for me from the Iranian side as a response to a Saudi letter which we delivered to the Iranians to achieve agreements and important breakthroughs in the situation in Iraq and the region.
ARRAF: He indicated that Trump had called to thank him for protecting the embassy after it was attacked by Iran-backed militias. And in fact, one of the leaders of those militias who helped protect the embassy, he said, was later killed in the drone strike. And after that vote - and it was a unanimous vote by the Shia parties, many of them Iranian-backed - he said he was putting in place legal measures to rescind approval for the U.S. forces here.
MARTIN: So what does this actually mean, Jane? I mean, you just said it's not legally binding but significant. Are we going to see, you know, American flags come down, U.S. tanks pulling out, troops leaving?
ARRAF: They likely will leave. It looks like it's almost inevitable that they will. There are 5,000 U.S. troops here, again, at the invitation of the Iraqi government, to support the Iraqis in anti-ISIS operations. And in fact, the U.S. said yesterday that it was concentrating on force protection given all the threats around them from Iranian-backed militias. And they are suspending those operations supporting the forces fighting ISIS and suspending training. Allies of the U.S. are worried. It depends on the government implementing this, but now that the prime minister has said he has put that process in motion, it looks like it will take effect.
MARTIN: U.S. allies, we're already hearing from Europeans in particular who are concerned about this latest development, right?
ARRAF: Yeah, one of the big fears has always been, in Iraq, that they're caught between the U.S. and Iran, and that could pull in all these other countries. Basically, if the U.S. leaves, a lot of the military allies leave as well. And there are increasing threats from Iran-backed militias. Last night there were more rocket attacks on the green zone near where the U.S. Embassy is based. And Iran and Iran-backed militias here have vowed even more action.
MARTIN: So Jane, we understand the mission of U.S. troops in recent years in Iraq has been to stave off Iranian influence - the effect, the influence of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq - but also to fight ISIS, right? So if U.S. troops are pushed out of the country, what happens on those two fronts?
ARRAF: Fighting ISIS, that's going to be much more difficult without the U.S. assets, the air support, the surveillance. And you know, what happened in 2014 - when ISIS came in, the people fighting them at the start weren't the Americans helping the Iraqis; it was the Iranians. So if U.S. forces leave, Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militias will certainly gain more influence.
There's also the rise in sectarian tension. At the vote in Parliament, the Kurds and Sunni members of Parliament boycotted that vote. And there's a lot of fear on the Kurdish side about what happens if U.S. forces leave.
MARTIN: And we remember many months, Jane, of protests in Iraq, Iraqis demanding a better government. Where are those demands now?
ARRAF: They've certainly taken a back seat now. Secretary of State Pompeo just yesterday tweeted he wanted them to continue their demands for a better government - not corrupt, not tied to Iran. But this certainly sets back their cause. And it's unlikely that that movement will gain much more traction.
MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf talking to us from Baghdad. Thank you, Jane.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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