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Iran's Powerful Influence In Iraq

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All this hour, we're talking about the fallout from the U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. One country that is likely to be on the frontlines of that fallout is Iran's neighbor, Iraq, where the drone strike occurred and where Iran exerts significant influence. To help us understand how that happened, we've called on Farhad Alaaldin. He's the chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council. That's a group that consults individuals and groups on security issues in Iraq. He is also a former adviser to two Iraqi presidents.

Mr. Alaaldin, thank you so much for joining us.

FARHAD ALAALDIN: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So earlier today, the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, tweeted that he spoke with the Iraqi president regarding President Trump's decision to, quote, "take defensive action to protect U.S. personnel and interests abroad," unquote. And he added another quote - "the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation." Given your work in Iraqi politics, do you think that's how the airstrike is being viewed in Baghdad?

ALAALDIN: Certainly it has been seen as an act of aggression, and the government have issued statements on that regard as well as most of the Shia political parties. They saw it as part of American attack on an Iranian target inside Iraq. And that could further escalate the conflict between the United States and Iran. And the fear of the Iraqis is that this conflict and the outcome of it could play out on the Iraqi soil.

MARTIN: I think many people will remember that Iran and Iraq, you know, waged eight years of war against each other. Can you tell us how you saw Iran exert its influence in Baghdad? And did you ever personally deal with Soleimani?

ALAALDIN: The Iranian influence goes back deep within the Iraqi society in terms of most of the current leadership, political leadership that governs Iraq after 2003. You remember that they were one way or another linked to Iran. The majority of them lived in Iran and worked in Iran during Saddam's time. And after the 2003 toppling of Saddam, they came back and worked with the Americans to come to power.

So the link they have with the Iranian government, with the Iranian hierarchy runs deep and goes back two decades in that front. And Iranians work very closely with the Iraqi political parties, especially the Shia ones. There are very strong links - religious links, cultural links.

You remember millions of Iranians visit every year to the holy shrines of Najaf and Karbala. Millions of Iraqis visit Mashhad for visiting Imam Reza and so on. So there is a strong cultural link as well as a political link. And obviously, the Iranians are using these links to further their political cause and their interests also. So the links is not a black and white - is a straightforward thing

MARTIN: I understand. I just want to pick up on something you said earlier. I mean, earlier this week, you told my colleague Steve Inskeep that Iraq is the arena in which the U.S.-Iran conflict is playing out. And you went on to say that Iraqi policymakers wanted to be neutral to this conflict as much as possible. This was in regards to the militia members who tried to storm the U.S. Embassy there. How - does this airstrike change anything - namely, Iraq's desire to be a neutral player in the U.S.-Iran tensions?

ALAALDIN: Well, the desire of the Iraqis is to become neutral. However, neither side, it seems that they want Iraq to be neutral, and they're using the Iraqi soil to further advance their cause. The attack - obviously, the Americans have this strategic interest in carrying out that attack, but that doesn't mean that the Iraqis would agree to it. And at the same time, the Iraqis fear very much that any damage that occurs in Iraq, Iraq will pay the price.

MARTIN: That is Farhad Alaaldin. He's the chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council.

Mr. Alaaldin, thank you so much for being with us and sharing your insights today.

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