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Iraq's Prime Minister To Visit White House

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Iraq's new prime minister is in Washington to meet with President Trump tomorrow, and it's an important visit for both countries. Seventeen years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the U.S. and Iraq have reached another turning point in their relations. NPR's Jane Arraf has covered Iraq since before the war. She joins us now from neighboring Jordan.

Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: OK. So first of all, can you tell us a little bit about this prime minister? He came to power after protests unseated the previous prime minister, right?

ARRAF: Yes. Mustafa al-Kadhimi - he's a former Iraqi exile who returned to Iraq after 2003 and a pretty interesting guy. He worked in media after coming back to Iraq from the U.K., and then he became Iraq's intelligence chief. He actually came to power after his predecessor was forced to step down amid sweeping anti-government protests against lack of services and corruption. And he wasn't exactly a shoo-in because parliament had rejected two previous candidates, but he had the negotiating skills and the support to actually win them over - got the job.

And he's meant to be a transitional prime minister, really, meant to pave the way for early elections. But with all the reforms that he's promised, if he succeeds in even some of them, he could very well be one of Iraq's most important post-war prime ministers at the end of the day.

CHANG: Interesting. So what's on the agenda for this meeting tomorrow?

ARRAF: Yeah, pretty much everything - economics, business deals, culture, educational ties. But the big-ticket item is the future of the U.S. military in Iraq. Now, a lot of Iraqi parties and militias, particularly Iran-backed ones, in Iraq want them out. And the U.S., too, doesn't necessarily want to keep the roughly 5,000 troops in Iraq it has there still, particularly since they're being attacked pretty regularly by Iran-backed militias and since the ISIS threat has diminished. They've also had quite a lot of problems ever since that U.S. drone strike killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and some senior Iraqi security officials, and that's increased the pressure quite a bit on the prime minister to get U.S. troops out of the country.

CHANG: Well, tell us why the U.S. still wants to maintain some military presence in Iraq.

ARRAF: I guess the short answer really is Iran, if we're going to be honest. Iran is still a huge preoccupation of the U.S. administration, and leaving some troops in Iraq, some presence, would be seen as something as a deterrent to Iran, which is Iraq's neighbor.

Iraq is one of the world's biggest oil producers. So once oil prices rise again, there will be potentially billions of dollars of deals to be done. The U.S. would want a presence there, including a military presence, to keep its interests safe. And really, if Iraq continues to slide into instability, it would affect the entire region. And that's not in the U.S. interest either.

CHANG: For Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, can you just talk about a little bit about what's going on in his country right now? Like, how has Iraq been faring during this pandemic?

ARRAF: It's been really tough. They've got a lot of cases of the coronavirus - on some days, more than 4,000 a day. But the big problem is really the infrastructure isn't there. The health care isn't available. There isn't oxygen in some of the hospitals. And Kadhimi's in a tough spot. He's trying to balance relations between neighboring Iran, which is a giant, and the U.S. and other countries and all the while trying to persuade Iraqis that they should actually believe in their country again. They should believe in democracy, that elections will change things.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jane Arraf in Amman, Jordan.

Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

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

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