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U.S. Launches Military Airstrikes Against Syria

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is the first public test of President Joe Biden's national security strategy. The U.S. military launched airstrikes late yesterday in Syria. Pentagon officials say they struck buildings being used by Iranian-backed militias there, the same militias the U.S. says were responsible for a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq last week. NPR's Alice Fordham is in northern Iraq and joins us now. Alice, thanks for being here.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What can you tell us so far about the airstrikes?

FORDHAM: Well, the Pentagon says these strikes hit militias that wield lots of power, both in Iraq and over the border in Syria. A statement on a messaging channel the militias use say one person was killed. There are some unconfirmed reports of several more casualties. And this is in response to a flurry of recent rocket attacks in Iraq and suggestions there could be more on the way. Of those attacks, one struck near the U.S. embassy. One hit a military base north of Baghdad, and the largest one hit a base used by the U.S. in the north of Iraq in the city of Irbil. And this looked a lot like a return to tactics used by Iran, which supports these militias, to needle the U.S. by attacking their infrastructure in Iraq, although we should say Iran has denied this.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction so far in Iraq?

FORDHAM: Thus far, it has been quiet in Iraq. We know Iran's foreign minister has called his Syrian counterpart. But here in Iraq, everyone is watching closely because there's precedent for escalation in this kind of circumstance. In 2019, there was a somewhat similar series of events. An American contractor was killed in an attack on a base. There were demonstrations that breached the outer walls of the U.S. embassy. And then there was this stunning day at the beginning of last year when an American strike in Baghdad killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and an Iraqi leader. After that, Iran fired a barrage of missiles at a base used by U.S. troops. Eventually, things simmered down, probably because Iran didn't want to risk all-out conflict, but the issues weren't resolved. And that's what seems to be bubbling up again now.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you to take a step back and explain kind of the complicated geopolitics here because these are Iraqi militias, but they are funded by Iran, right?

FORDHAM: That's right. And then they've been struck in Syria, so this draws in the region, certainly. The background to understanding why this strike happened in Syria is that over the last few years, we've seen this proxy struggle between the U.S. and Iran play out in Iraq, which has stretched the U.S.' important relationship with the Iraqi government. American forces are here at the invitation of Iraq to fight ISIS. But that American strike I mentioned was seen as overstepping the limits of that invitation. So my read of a strike in Syria rather than Iraq is that it's a way of hitting these militias without endangering that relationship between Iraq and the U.S.

MARTIN: Right. So the attack comes as the Biden administration is trying to revive a nuclear pact with Iran, which means meeting the Iranians. Does this strike jeopardize that?

FORDHAM: Well, to me, both Iran and the U.S. seem to be doing balancing acts. Iran looks to be flexing its muscles, but that doesn't mean it doesn't want to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. doesn't want things to escalate, but it doesn't want to let provocations go totally unanswered. Here on the ground in Iraq, where there's real fear of being caught in the middle, where these rocket attacks injure people and hurt property, I will say that most people really hope both sides manage that balancing act and some kind of equilibrium is found.

MARTIN: NPR's Alice Fordham in Iraq, thank you.

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


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