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Protesters Gather Outside U.S. Embassy In Baghdad


Photos and video out of Baghdad show protesters outside the United States Embassy. Some of them set fires; some of them waved flags; others stormed the entrance. Liz Sly, a correspondent for The Washington Post, sends video of people who seem to be entering the fortified reception area. They attacked after U.S. forces struck targets linked with a militia inside Syria and Iraq. Hiwa Osman is going to try to make sense of this for us. He is a journalist in Irbil, Iraq. Welcome to the program.

HIWA OSMAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from people in Baghdad?

OSMAN: Well, this morning, members of the pro-Iranian militias that are targeting the protesters, they attacked the U.S. embassy. And they are trying to storm - I'm not sure they are trying to storm the compound completely. They are just trying to send a message to the United States that they are there and they have the upper hand in Iraq. And this is a clear message not from the Iraqis. It is a message from the Iranians to the United States of America. So many people there are seeing it like this.

INSKEEP: You have said two significant things. First, you're saying that this is not some effort to take over this embassy, which is relatively new and heavily fortified. Is that what you said?

OSMAN: Yes, that's right, the embassy. They are just trying to send - because from what we are hearing, they are putting out tents outside the embassy compound. They want to stage a picket or a strike just outside the embassy in order to keep pressure on the United States. These are Iraqi people, but they are loyal to Iran. They are members of militias that the United States - that they killed a contractor two days ago.

INSKEEP: That, of course, is the militia that the United States hit with those airstrikes. But that is another key point that we want to nail down as much as we can. The United States has described this as a strike on an Iran-backed militia. You're telling me that this is in Iran-backed protest at the United States embassy. How clear is it to you that this is an Iranian-backed or Iranian-directed move?

OSMAN: It is very clear. The leaders of the militias who are running - who openly say on television and everywhere else that they are supported and backed by Iran are on the scene. They are amongst the so-called protesters now just outside the embassy. They are overseeing the attack on the U.S. Embassy. People like Qais al-Khazali (ph), the head of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, AAH Group, people like Falih Alfayyadh (ph), the national security adviser who is known for his ties to Iran - these people are all at the scene, and they are amongst the protesters.

INSKEEP: I want to underline another thing here. The video that we've seen suggests hundreds of people perhaps outside the United States Embassy but perhaps not thousands of people. It is not an enormous protest. And we should notice there have been enormous protests in Baghdad in recent months, protests that in some measure are protests against the influence of Iran. How does this seeming pro-Iranian protest compare in size to what has been seen on the streets of Baghdad in recent months?

OSMAN: Well, it is minute in terms of numbers and size. If you - I just spoke to people in Tahrir Square who are saying they are much more peaceful now because all the people who were attacking them, who were killing them over the past two months, are now outside the U.S. Embassy, and they are not connected at all with it. They are on the other side of the river across the U.S. Embassy further up a little bit. But they are - they come out in - sometimes they are near a million some of their protests. But these people are in their hundreds. It is very clear. It is exactly the same number of people that they speak that once - a month ago, they tried to come up with a parallel protest, but because of the numbers, they could not take the protest to Tahrir Square. This time, they used this opportunity to attack the U.S. Embassy and (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Journalist Hiwa Osman in Irbil, Iraq, thank you so much.

OSMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And let's bring another voice in now. Farhad Alaaldin is head of the Iraqi Advisory Council, which is a think tank that does a lot of work in Baghdad. We have found him in London. Welcome to the program, sir.

FARHAD ALAALDIN: Oh, thank you.

INSKEEP: What do you make of what you've just heard about who is protesting, how many and who seems to be behind it?

ALAALDIN: Well, it's clear this is the U.S.-Iran conflict playing out in Iraq, and Iraq is becoming an arena for that conflict. And it is unfortunate that the Iraqis always wanted and the Iraqi policymakers wanted to be neutral to this conflict as much as possible. But the recent events prevents that being neutrality. And the Iraqis would be paying a heavy price for it.

INSKEEP: We - you say the Iraqis will be paying a heavy price for it. That is an interesting note. The president of the United States is now commenting on this. He's been on Twitter saying on Twitter that Iran, quote, "will be held fully responsible," blaming Iran fully for this, not blaming the individual Iraqis who may be the people outside the embassy. But you say this could be damaging to Iraq as well. Why?

ALAALDIN: Obviously, it's - Iraq is the arena and the people who get killed are Iraqis regardless of affiliation and an addition that any attack on the diplomatic missions, foreigners, the American or otherwise, would be - Iraq would be held responsible. And Iraq could be - would be suffering the consequences. And Iraq in its fragile state, its economy's fragility, the security and everything else, is going to be very difficult to sustain or stand any sort of punishment, really, that could face as a consequence of this conflict. And Iraq should have nothing to do with it. But it is becoming increasingly involved in this tug of war.

INSKEEP: Should we think of this militia as purely an arm of Iran? I can imagine an armed group in Iraq saying we're Iraqis, we're patriotic, we just accept some Iranian support. Should we instead just think of them as virtually an Iranian group?

ALAALDIN: There are groups which are loyal to Iran, and they believe that what they're doing is the borderless cause that they have and that's why they crossed Syria and Lebanon and other places. And these people do work closely with the Iranian mission, if you want, in terms of their fight and what they call the resistance.

INSKEEP: Farhad Alaaldin, analyst with the Iraqi Advisory Council, thank you so much for your insights, really appreciate it.

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