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U.S. Faces Criticism In The Middle East, After Launching Airstrikes In Iraq And Syria

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's been condemnation today from many corners of the Middle East in response to U.S. airstrikes on five locations in Iraq and Syria. Iraq's prime minister says the strikes will have dangerous consequences. The Pentagon announced these strikes yesterday and said they were targeting an Iranian-backed militia group called Kataib Hezbollah. The U.S. blames that group for killing an American contractor in a rocket attack last Friday.

So what might this mean for the region and for U.S. forces stationed there - questions to put to Renad Mansour. He's a Middle East analyst with the foreign policy think tank Chatham House in London. And he joins us now from very busy streets at rush hour in London.

Renad Mansour, welcome.

RENAD MANSOUR: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Tell me a little more about this group Kataib Hezbollah, which I mentioned is - it's a militia group. It's mostly Iraqis, but it is backed by Iran. What does that mean? What kind of support do they get from Iran?

MANSOUR: Kataib Hezbollah is one of the several militias that have existed in Iraq for quite some time now. It's part of a group known as the Popular Mobilization Units that have been fighting, at times, alongside the Iraqi state. It was part of the fight against ISIS. It's known to be one of those groups that's very close to Iran.

KELLY: And the name prompts me to ask, are they linked to Lebanese Hezbollah, which we hear so much about?

MANSOUR: Not formally, not institutionally - Kataib Hezbollah is kind of - some people would refer to them as the Iraqi Hezbollah. These groups have relations with each other. They've - at times, they shared training with each other, but they're in different fields.

KELLY: Now, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came out and blamed Iran specifically for this death of an American contractor last week. Do we know - you mentioned that they work closely with Iran, but how much control does Iran actually have over this group's activities?

MANSOUR: The word proxies are often used to describe many of these militias. And oftentimes, we push back and say, well, some of them actually have their own agendas. This group, Kataib Hezbollah, is known to be closer to Iran in that kind of level of proxy-ness. You know, it works with Iran insofar as their strategies align. That could be fighting ISIS, or it could be any other sort of strategy that Iran would have and would need some local forces like these Iraqi men who make up Kataib Hezbollah.

KELLY: As I mentioned, these strikes have been not well-received in the region. Iraq has criticized them. Iran has criticized them. Tell me a little bit more about how this is playing in the broader Middle East.

MANSOUR: The biggest thing to look out for is the relationship between the Americans and the Iraqi government. In the past, the American president would call the Iraqi prime minister almost weekly in the days of Bush and early Obama.

What's happened now is the U.S. have really lost a lot of their institutional allies in the Iraqi state. And so this becomes indicative of when Americans do pursue something like this airstrike, they're going to continue to face stronger and stronger condemnation by the Iraqi government. The president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament have all come out condemning these attacks as encroachments on Iraq's sovereignty.

KELLY: But the U.S., as you know, says this was self-defense - said, hey, we have been warning that we were going to hit back if attacks continued. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Esper came out yesterday and said, if these attacks continue, there's going to be a response.

MANSOUR: Yeah, and there has been this tit for tat - kind of. After the fight against ISIS - because keep in mind the U.S. and Iran were on the same side in the fight against ISIS. The question then came, well, what's going to happen? I mean, the U.S. and Iran are clearly two foes now. Just because they had this convenient enemy that kept them together doesn't mean that they're always going to be that type of allies. And they weren't allies, of course.

However, it seemed that there was a norm, you know, in the last few years that they - neither side really wanted to fight in Iraq. Neither side wanted to just destabilize and undo what they spent years redoing - you know, fighting ISIS and rebuilding the state. And so the attention was often other places. And I think what we've seen this week suggests that these sides are now willing to move past that norm, which is to not destabilize Iraq. And this could be a potentially destabilizing moment.

KELLY: That is Renad Mansour, Middle East analyst at Chatham House. We have been speaking with him from London.

Thanks very much.

MANSOUR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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