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What fighting in the Middle East means for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq

Fighters carry the coffin of Abu Baqir al-Saadi during his funeral on Feb. 8. He was a senior commander in Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.
Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/dpa via Getty Images
Fighters carry the coffin of Abu Baqir al-Saadi during his funeral on Feb. 8. He was a senior commander in Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

BAGHDAD — The militia commander was driving in an unmarked car when the United States killed him, the drone attack flinging the vehicle to the sidewalk and incinerating it in a busy neighborhood in east Baghdad.

The Feb. 7 killing of Kataib Hezbollah commander Abu Baqir al-Saadi wasn't the first strike by the United States in retaliation for a deadly attack on a U.S. base in Jordan last month. But, like the U.S. assassinations of senior Iranian and Iraqi officials in Baghdad four years ago, the attack has wider repercussions on the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The war in Gaza between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas has ignited flashpoints in other parts of the region, raising fears of wider war. In Iraq, years-long hostilities between Iran-backed militias and the United States have erupted into deadly attacks on both sides.

Iraq's government condemned the U.S. drone strike on Saadi in the Iraqi capital as an attack on the country's sovereignty. The prime minister, who came to power with the support of Iran-backed political parties in Iraq, has acquiesced to calls to disband the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq.

That includes about 2,500 U.S. military personnel in the country, according to the Pentagon. There are another roughly 900 deployed in neighboring Syria, with support from U.S. bases in Iraq.

The Iraqi prime minister's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rasool, said after a second round of talks between Iraqi and American military officials in February that the two sides would establish a timetable for "a studied and gradual reduction until the termination of the mission of the international coalition forces."

They joined forces to fight ISIS

That coalition formed in 2014 when Iraq, faced with an onslaught from the Islamic State group, asked the United States to come back to help fight the Sunni Muslim militant group. Entire Iraqi army divisions collapsed as ISIS took over territory in Mosul and other parts of Iraq.

Iran-backed militias came on the scene even before the United States. With ISIS threatening Baghdad, the revered Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on any Iraqi who was able to join up to fight ISIS.

Three years later, ISIS was driven out of Iraq and then, two years after that, it was territorially defeated in its last stronghold in Syria. But U.S. forces stayed. And the Iran-backed militias, which answered more to Iran than to the Iraqi government, have now become a permanent part of Iraqi government security forces — on the government payroll and known as Popular Mobilization Forces.

Many of the militias in Iraq have political wings and politicians aligned with them hold a substantial number of seats in Iraqi parliament. Amid ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Iran, it's a combustible combination.

A soldier from the U.S.-led coalition is seen at the Al-Qaim Military Base in Iraq's Anbar province, west of Baghdad, on March 19, 2020.
/ Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A soldier from the U.S.-led coalition is seen at the Al-Qaim Military Base in Iraq's Anbar province, west of Baghdad, on March 19, 2020.

Iraqi officials said the killing of Saadi would hasten the departure of U.S. forces from the country.

"The man is a fighter and a leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces," Qassim al-Araji, Iraq's national security adviser, told NPR. "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."

"This incident will reinforce the necessity of ending the international coalition's mission," he said, adding that he believed the coalition would be disbanded within a year.

Saadi's killing raises the bar

Araji was one of the mourners at a funeral ceremony for Saadi in Baghdad on Feb. 8. Outside one of the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces, hundreds of fighters thronged the streets. A dozen fighters carried his coffin, draped in a flag and covered in flowers for its journey to the cemetery in Najaf, a holy city south of Baghdad.

While Kataib Hezbollah has brigades in the official government security forces, it is also perhaps the most powerful member of the loose coalition of Iraq-based militias calling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. Those paramilitary groups have dramatically escalated attacks on U.S. targets and in some cases Israel since the start of the Gaza war in October.

An imam from Kataib Hezbollah, Sheikh Abu Taleb al-Saidi, praised Saadi in a eulogy at his funeral as a resistance fighter involved in a quarter of more than 200 attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets.

As the death toll from Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip has mounted to more than 29,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, the militias have said their attacks will stop only when the fighting in Gaza stops. Israel has been fighting Hamas since the group attacked it on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people in Israel, according to the Israeli government.

A Palestinian pulls a cart in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, on Thursday.
Mohammed Dahman / AP
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AP
A Palestinian pulls a cart in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, on Thursday.

"Today, thanks to God Almighty, and with the blessings of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, we have this brave, heroic and holy stance with the people of Gaza," Saidi told the gathering. "We are defending Iraqi sovereignty and the Iraqi government and defending another Muslim people who are killed every day amid this great global silence."

A previous U.S. attack on Feb. 2 on a militia base in Iraq's western Anbar province near the Syrian border killed at least 17 people. Those airstrikes — far from Baghdad and killing mostly junior fighters — had much less of an impact than Saadi's assassination.

A senior Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be able to speak about sensitive security issues, said since the U.S. gave notice in early February that it would retaliate for the strike on its base in Jordan, many senior militia commanders have left for Iran. That strike killed three U.S. service members and injured about 45 more.

The official said others still in Baghdad have been changing vehicles and avoiding convoys to avoid detection, as Saadi had tried to do.

After the killing of Saadi, who was responsible for Kataib Hezbollah's logistics, the group said it would no longer abide by a pledge it gave to the Iraqi government to halt attacks on U.S. targets.

The spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, Mohammad Mohi, said the United States would pay a heavy price for killing the commander.

"He is one of our major leaders and one of the distinguished personalities that the United States dared to target," said Mohi. "God willing we will confront the United States and not only expel it from Iraq but from the entire region as well."

With Israeli attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and the International Court of Justice now reviewing allegations of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, many of the militias attacking forces from the U.S. — a main financial and military backer of Israel — view this as a holy fight.

"Today Iraqis are choosing this war," said Sheikh Kadhem al-Fartousi, spokesman for Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, another of the Iran-backed militias in the resistance coalition. In an NPR interview, he contrasted it to wars imposed on Iraqis in the time of former dictator Saddam Hussein — with Iran and over Kuwait.

Fartousi said the participation of Iraqi groups in support of Palestinians and Gaza reinforces their attachment "to their homeland and to Iraqi sovereignty" and their solidarity with the Arab and Muslim world.

The resistance insists U.S. forces get out of Iraq before the U.S. election in November next year, because they believe the U.S. administration was using strikes in Iraq to shore up domestic political support, Fartousi said.

Hussein Allawi, an adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, told state-run Iraqiya TV that future military cooperation would focus on bilateral agreements with allies.

Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told NPR there was a wider question at issue: "Which kind of relationship do we want with the Americans?"

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein speaks at a news conference in Baghdad, on Feb. 22, 2023.
/ Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein speaks at a news conference in Baghdad, on Feb. 22, 2023.

"For Iraqis we are really caught between an ally, which is the American, and a neighbor, which is the Iranian," he said. "They are fighting each other on our side, so this is very strange."

He said attacks by both the United States and Iran on Iraqi soil needed to stop.

In January,Iran launched ballistic missiles against the home of a prominent Kurdish businessman in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, killing him, his daughter and two other people. Iran claimed, without providing proof, that the home was a base for Israeli intelligence.

"They know that what they are talking about is baseless but they are attacking us," said Hussein, adding that he suspects it was because Iran was afraid to attack Israel directly.

Hussein canceled a planned meeting with the Iranian foreign minister after the attack and said he has not spoken since to Iranian officials. He said he is still waiting for proof from Iran of its allegations of the Mossad presence.

Hussein and military spokesman Gen. Rasool said the military negotiations on the American troop presence in Iraq would continue as long as there were no attacks between the militias and the U.S. Both sides, however, have made clear that the retaliatory attacks are not over.

"If there will be attacks and counterattacks then it will be difficult to negotiate. We cannot negotiate through bullets," Hussein said.

U.S. military officials have said they need to retain a presence in Iraq both because they fear a resurgence of ISIS in neighboring Syria and to serve as a counterweight to Iranian influence.

The U.S. postponed a round of the military meetings with Iraq after the attack on its base in Jordan. But a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to be able to discuss military matters, said they believed the discussions were important and it wanted to resume them.

The official said the nature and the scope of a future mission would depend on the readiness of Iraqi security forces, the operational environment, and how much of a threat ISIS presents.

While the Iraqi military has rebuilt itself since 2014, the U.S. still provides valuable surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence help as well as air support for Iraqi operations.

Iraqi officials and even militia leaders have said they are not opposed to a small number of military advisers in the country.

The foreign minister, who is Kurdish, says since Kurdish and Sunni parties want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq, any decision has to be a joint one.

A parliament session called earlier this month to vote to expel U.S. troops was essentially boycotted by Kurdish and Sunni legislators, leaving fewer than 40% of the chamber who turned up to vote. Some Shia lawmakers also did not attend.

Any parliament decision is nonbinding, but it's a gauge of political pressure on Iraq's prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

Shia Muslim pilgrims carry a symbolic coffin as they rally at the shrine of eighth century Imam Musa al-Kadhim during the yearly commemoration of his death in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district on Feb. 6.
Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Shia Muslim pilgrims carry a symbolic coffin as they rally at the shrine of eighth century Imam Musa al-Kadhim during the yearly commemoration of his death in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district on Feb. 6.

A calmer Iraq but U.S. seen as occupiers

The U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein 21 years ago left a security vacuum when it disbanded Iraq's armed forces. In the chaos that followed, a wave of attacks by al-Qaida on Shia and U.S. targets prompted the formation of Shia armed groups to counter the Sunni extremists. The country rapidly descended into a sectarian civil war.

Since Iraqi forces, backed by the U.S., and Iran-led militiasdefeated ISIS in Iraq in late 2017, the country has been much calmer, although still volatile.

Earlier this month, millions of pilgrims walked to the Kadhimiya shrine in Baghdad from all across the country. There were no reported attacks — unlike in previous years when the Shia religious ceremonies, once banned by Saddam, were routinely bombed by Sunni militants.

At this latest pilgrimage, in the crowded streets near the burial place of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, an Iraqi military helicopter hovered overhead — a huge Shia religious banner hanging from it.

Regular stations were set up along the pilgrimage route to feed the pilgrims, many of whom had walked for days.

Off-duty policeman Qaid Hassan Hussein was helping to prepare large metal pots of rice — each enough to feed hundreds of people, he said.

"A question for you," he asked, offering a metaphor for American forces: "If you live in your house and a stranger comes and tells you who can come in and out, would you accept that?"

Awadh al-Taie contributed reporting from Baghdad.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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