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What's Happening In Baghdad Following Iraqi Parliament Vote To Expel U.S. Forces


There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. And yesterday, Iraq's government told them to get out. That was after a U.S. drone strike killed one of Iran's top generals in Baghdad. Now American troops are on the move within the country.

NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Baghdad. Hi, Jane.


SHAPIRO: This is a very confusing story. And I know you've been talking to high-level officials, any sources that you have. The Pentagon says it's moving troops within the country after Iraq told troops to get out of the country. How - can you explain this to us?

ARRAF: Yeah, I could explain some of it - not all of it - 'cause there are a lot of mixed messages coming from the Pentagon. I've got to be honest here. Here's what we do know. I've been sitting here. And all night long, there have been helicopters coming and going from the Green Zone in darkness. The - a U.S. military official here says they're taking out a few hundred coalition and NATO troops from a base that's in the Green Zone. And the Green Zone is not a great place to be because it gets rocketed all the time.

SHAPIRO: That's dangerous.

ARRAF: So he says - it's dangerous. Yep. He says they're going out because they've now suspended training operations, as have the U.S. So he says they're going out to Kuwait, actually. At the Pentagon, they say they're just routine repositioning in Iraq. But all of this, of course, has taken on heightened importance because of the sensitivity of this. And to add more fuel to this fire, there was a letter sent by a senior Iraqi commander to the - sorry - a senior U.S. commander...

SHAPIRO: An American, right?

ARRAF: ...To the Iraqi military. Yes, to the Iraqi military - essentially saying that they were complying with the departure order. The Pentagon now says, essentially, that letter should not have been sent.

SHAPIRO: So the U.S. officially says in a letter to Iraq, we are complying with the order; we are pulling out troops. And then the Pentagon says, woops, we didn't mean to send the letter; that's not actually what we're doing.

ARRAF: Yeah. It wasn't quite as direct as, we're pulling out troops. But it did have language with, in deference to your decision. And in Arabic, which is the part that the Iraqis pay attention to, of course, they used the word exit or withdrawal. Either of those, of course, seems pretty definitive. But the Pentagon now says, no, that's not the case. They are not withdrawing troops. And in fact, there still are about 5,000 U.S. troops here.

SHAPIRO: Explain how we got here over the weekend to lead to this. This was a sectarian vote within Iraq's parliament that the prime minister says he'll support.

ARRAF: Yeah, strongly support. So the prime minister started off with talking about how the U.S. military had breached sovereignty and how Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general, had been here on a peace mission, he says, when he was killed by a drone strike. And then they voted, and it was a vote held by largely Shia parties. The speaker, who's a Sunni, pleaded with them, saying this is going to have economic repercussions; think about what you're doing. But they still voted for this. The Kurds and Sunnis, for the most part, boycotted the vote. So it's a very divided political scene.

SHAPIRO: Explain the diplomacy that's been going on today over this. The Iraqi order seemed very clear. How are the U.S. and its allies responding today?

ARRAF: Well, the allies are scrambling, certainly. The Europeans do not want to see an Iraq with only Iranian influence here. There's the fight against ISIS. That's the whole reason that U.S. troops are here. Those operations supporting the Iraqis have now been suspended. So the prime minister met with the American ambassador today and then said that they were discussing how to basically stop the slide into all-out war, which sounds pretty scary. The allies, for the most part, are trying to figure out, it seems, whether there is a formula which would have a reduced U.S. presence but still keep forces here to help the Iraqis.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Jane Arraf covering a very confusing day in Baghdad, Iraq.

Thank you, Jane.

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

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.