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What Young Iraqis Want For U.S. Troops


There's intense debate in Iraq over whether U.S. forces should be expelled after the U.S. killed a high-level Iranian commander and an Iraqi paramilitary leader. The push to order them out has been influenced by Iran-backed parties that hold the balance of power in Iraqi politics. But not everyone wants the U.S. troops to leave. NPR's Jane Arraf spoke to young Iraqis in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Three months after anti-government demonstrations began in Baghdad, protesters have taken over the city's central Tahrir Square. Thousands are living here, pitching tents between the food carts and street vendors. They say they will stay until they get the country they deserve. For most, including Sajad, a medical student, that's an Iraq friendly with the U.S. and other countries.

SAJAD: We need America. We need Iran. Not - we don't hate Iran. We don't hate America. We don't hate America. I want America to be here. I want Iran want to be here. OK?

ARRAF: We're not using protesters' last names because thousands have been arrested or kidnapped. Sajad says they want the U.S. and Iran to respect Iraqis. And by that, he means not come here and kill people. The Iraq he and these other protesters want is one that has good relations with everyone.

The turning point for a lot of Iraqis was the U.S. drone killing in Baghdad of Iran's top security commander and an Iraqi paramilitary leader. They fear Iraq has become a battleground in the conflict between Iran and the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: And they fear the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, many of them the armed wings of political parties - believed to be responsible for killing hundreds of protesters since October.

RASOUL: (Through interpreter) We don't want American forces to leave Iraqi soil, to be honest, because the political parties are eating us alive. If the Americans leave, the Iranian parties will take over. And then we will have chaos.

ARRAF: That's Rasoul, a 26-year-old carpenter from the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.

RASOUL: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He pulls a tear gas canister the size of a soda can from his pocket to show us. It's the kind that killed dozens and badly wounded thousands of protesters when security forces fired them directly into the crowd. He says Iraqis are still grateful to the U.S. for ridding them of Saddam Hussein. But he says they shouldn't have launched the drone strike.

His younger brother Hussein, who drives one of the tiny three-wheeled vehicles called tuk tuks, sums up why they don't want the U.S. to withdraw.

HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) Iran is afraid of America and Iraq. And America is afraid of Iran and Iraq. So if one of them leaves, the other side will eat us alive.

ARRAF: These protesters feel their country's been hijacked by politicians working for Iran and other interests. And there are definitely some who think all foreign forces should leave Iraq. But most of the young people here seem to believe the U.S. presence in Iraq, even far away on bases, is protecting them because the U.S. opposes the Iran-backed militias that are kidnapping and killing protesters. In another part of Tahrir Square, a group of friends watch Iraqi TV news in an empty shop.

HAMZA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "We're protected by the Americans," says Hamza, a construction worker from Diyala province. He says the U.S. satellites deployed over Baghdad are monitoring what happens in Tahrir Square. He and his friends haven't left the square for weeks. They say, if they tried to leave, they'd be kidnapped or stabbed in the street by militia members. Hamza says three of his brothers have been killed by the militias since 2006. "Without the U.S. satellites, they would massacre us," he says. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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