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Taking Stock Of A Breathtaking Week For Iran, Iraq And The U.S.


We begin this hour in Washington and Baghdad. It's been a week since a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian commander visiting Iraq. And in the week since that killing, there have been a breathtaking set of events. Iraq called for U.S. troops to get out. Iranian missiles struck Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. And a Ukrainian jetliner crashed shortly after takeoff. U.S. officials say it was shot down - maybe accidentally - by Iran. We're going to take the next few minutes to take stock of all that's happened. To do so, I'm joined by NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department.

Welcome back, Michele.


CORNISH: And NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from Baghdad.

Hello, Jane.


CORNISH: Michele, I want to start with you. People are wondering how this plane crash will be investigated, given that the U.S. is trying to isolate Iran from the rest of the world. And today, the U.S. made some news on that, right?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, the Treasury Department said it's going to issue waivers to U.S. sanctions to help facilitate this investigation. You know, the U.S. has so many sanctions on Iran. And it could be hard for U.S. nationals or even other foreigners to go and take part in the investigation. So that's what these waivers were about. The Treasury Department announced this even as they stepped up further sanctions on Iran, hitting the mining and construction sectors, for instance. There was also a new round of targeted sanctions. But I should point out that some of the people singled out are already on U.S. sanctions lists.

CORNISH: And then the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, also said that the U.S. intends to keep troops in Iraq. And this is even though the Iraqi parliament voted to expel U.S. troops. So how did Pompeo say they're going to do that?

KELEMEN: He basically just says, look. You know, U.S. forces are there for good reasons in the Middle East. They're there to fight ISIS. And the U.S. needs to continue to do that. The Iraqis have said they want him to send a delegation to talk about withdrawal. He's made clear that he's willing to have conversations with them about the appropriate force posture in the Middle East but not about withdrawal. He also has said that, you know, they want NATO to play a bigger role and get Europeans to share the burden a little more. But that was about it.

CORNISH: Jane, you're in Baghdad, and you've been talking with Iraqis. What are they saying at this point?

ARRAF: Well, it might surprise people to know that, you know, there are quite a fair number of Iraqis who don't want American troops to leave. And a lot of those people were at an anti-government demonstration today. Let's listen to one of them, a second-year medical student named Sajad (ph).

SAJAD: I don't want any country to leave. We need America. And we need Iran. We don't hate Iran. We don't hate America. We don't hate America. I want America to be here. I want Iran to be here, OK? I want them to respect us. I want America to respect us. I want Iran to respect us. But at the same time, I don't want them to leave.

ARRAF: And by respect, he means he does not want either Iran or the United States to come to Iraq and basically kill Iraqis. This is a generation that wants to be part of the world, but it also wants the integrity of their homeland.

CORNISH: And then, Jane, there's been a lot of diplomatic efforts aimed just, like, at keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. I mean, do you think there's a way to square that at the political level?

ARRAF: It sounds really tricky right now because the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, called Pompeo and says he said very clearly he would like a team to come here to discuss the mechanism for a safe withdrawal. Now, that gets translated into Pompeo saying, we're going to continue the mission. So hard to see where that common ground is there, except that nobody wants chaos. And part of that is European allies - Britain, France and others - possibly discussing an alternative in which the Europeans could take the lead, maybe with a reduced U.S. force, and still continue the fight against ISIS here.

CORNISH: Michele, is there appetite in the U.S. for some reconfiguration of, essentially, the anti-ISIS coalition that's usually dominated by the U.S.?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, you have to remember what Trump always talks about. He wants burden sharing. He wants to draw down from the Middle East. He says that, of course, while at the same time sending more troops and assets to the region to counter Iran. So we'll have to see what he does. That's a big question mark.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department.

Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

CORNISH: And NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad, thanks for your reporting.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.