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Iraq's Position Between The U.S. And Iran

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Global and regional powers are on edge as a conflict between Iran and the United States boils over. The U.S. assassination of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani took place on Iraqi soil, a nation where the U.S. and Iran's escalating battle is playing out.

Here to explain what Iraq is dealing with caught between two allies is Abbas Kadhim, senior fellow and director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Welcome.

ABBAS KADHIM: Thank you very much, Leila.

FADEL: So the government of Iraq condemned the killing of Soleimani. We saw mourners in the streets of Iraq today, including the caretaker prime minister. Seems like the Iraqi government keeps getting blindsided by these strikes.

KADHIM: Well, the Iraqis have been caught in the middle of the crossfire. They tried to steer their country away from this conflict for years right now. And finally, it put them right in the middle of the storm's eye. And they are very much disappointed that the U.S. elected to do this bombing on Iraqi soil.

They have tried to avoid the escalation of this conflict after the siege of the embassy. The prime minister of Iraq personally intervened and cleared the protesters away from the U.S. embassy and promised that everything will be handled politically. But then they were caught again in this strike, so they have no choice but to respond to the heavy pressure from the streets. Iran has very powerful allies, armed groups and also social groups inside Iraq. The way the Iraqi government responded was pretty much expected.

FADEL: But it also has - Iran has also a lot of detractors, a lot of protesters in the streets who've been protesting their influence in Iraq.

KADHIM: That's true. The Iraqis in general do not like to see foreign influence. They are patriotic. They do like to see their country prosper and continue to be sovereign. That is the general sentiment of the Iraqis. The silent majority, if you will, is of that persuasion. And at the end of the day, the equation favors those who carry guns. The friends of Iran carry guns.

FADEL: Now if Iraq is the backdrop of an open war between the U.S. and Iran, what does that mean for people there?

KADHIM: Well, their life will be very hard because they will - first of all, the Iranians are going to play a zero-sum game with the Iraqis. They do not tolerate any neutral position. You have to be with them or against them. And the United States also will hold the government of Iraq under tremendous pressure also to choose sides.

The biggest problem if you corner the Iraqis to choose sides between the United States and Iran, they find it safer to chose Iran because the Iranians can inflict physical and imminent damage. Iran is their physical neighbor. There is a 1,400-kilometer border, and the United States is coming from far away. So the event for the Iraqis is the permanent, historic and geographic reality that they have to deal with.

FADEL: So both the U.S. and Iran see Iraq as a way to exert their influence in the Middle East. Is the Iraqi government capable enough to secure its own interests amidst foreign intervention?

KADHIM: At this time, the Iraqi government is very vulnerable. The prime minister just resigned. Around it (ph) is a caretaker government. The Iraqi political elite is divided. There are ethnosectarian issues, domestic issues and also international policy in Iraq is not - not everybody is on the same page. So I think that the current crisis could not have come at a worse time.

FADEL: That was Abbas Kadhim of the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much.

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