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U.S. Troops Temporarily Stop The Fight Against ISIS In Iraq


What do U.S. troops in Iraq do now that the country's Parliament has voted them out? Iraqi lawmakers held that vote yesterday. It is not yet binding, though our colleague Jane Arraf in Baghdad reports it is heading that way. Iraqis responded to what they saw as a violation of their country's sovereignty - a U.S. strike in Baghdad that killed a visiting Iranian general. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are U.S. troops doing in Iraq right now?

BOWMAN: Well, right now there are about 5,000 U.S. troops, and they're taking part in the fight against ISIS. There now appears to be a pause in that fight. That's what the U.S. military says. But the bottom line is ISIS is still a real threat. It's returning in some remote areas and also slipping back into the cities.

I was in Iraq last fall and told ISIS has a three- to five-year plan to restore the Caliphate - bomb and assassinate first, then grab land for a little time and then grab land for a longer time and expand. So there is that concern. Now, as you say, Iraqi leaders want U.S. troops to leave, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hopes they'll reconsider.

INSKEEP: Hopes they'll reconsider, although is it possible that if this vote were to take force, that U.S. troops would be entirely thrown out?

BOWMAN: It is possible. And of course, that would mean the - it would be harder to obviously fight ISIS not only in Iraq but in neighboring Syria as well because the U.S. troops in Iraq use road and air to get into Syria for that fight. So it could affect the fight next door as well in Syria going after ISIS.

INSKEEP: Tom, I know you talk all the time with military people and people in Congress who oversee the military, who think a lot about the laws of war. What are you hearing about the justification for this strike? We do know that Qassem Soleimani, the general who was killed, had been linked with the deaths of many Americans in the past, but the U.S. is calling this a preemptive strike based on an alleged imminent attack.

BOWMAN: That's right. And the question - I talked to folks on the Hill - is what's the authorization to do this? The administration says the authorization of the use of military force from 2001, but that had to do with the 9/11 terror attacks and associated groups, those who took part in that attack.

And that was, you know - so this question is, well, is - are you going after terrorists? Because Qassem Soleimani, that Iranian general, was considered a terrorist. His group was considered a terrorist group. So is this going after terror or are you going after a nation-state? The question is uncertain at this point, exactly how they're justifying this.

INSKEEP: Is there a precedent for targeting a general of what we could call an enemy nation, although the United States is not at war with Iran?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, a senior State Department official, you know, said that this is akin to killing Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack. And his aircraft was shot down by Americans in the midst of World War II. But of course, Japan was a belligerent at that time. There was a declared war, and he was a senior military officer.

So are you saying the U.S. is at war with Iran or, again, is this going after a terrorist? It seems to be just kind of muddled now. And I'm told members of Congress will get more briefings this week from administration officials about what exactly this is and also, more importantly, the way ahead.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the way ahead because the president has said if Iran were to target Americans or American interests, the U.S. will respond and that he says there is a list of 52 sites, including some in Iran, including Iranian cultural sites. If the military is told to target cultural sites, would they follow that order?

BOWMAN: Most likely you would not because that violates - it's a violation of the laws of war. So they'd most likely say they would not do that, Steve, because it's an illegal order.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much for the update.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.