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The Iraqi government feels the pressure as militias increase attacks on U.S. bases

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The conflict between Hamas and Israel is having a major impact on another country in the region, Iraq. Militias supported by Iran have hit dozens of U.S. military facilities in Iraq. Last week, they fired rockets at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This puts pressure on the Iraqi government as it tries to manage a delicate balance between Iranian and American interests in the country. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is following these developments from her base in Rome. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about these attacks against U.S. bases. What do you know about what's been happening?

SHERLOCK: Well, look, I mean, there's been attacks, this kind of tit-for-tat fighting between Iranian-backed militias and U.S. forces in Iraq and in Syria nearby for years. But the difference here, Ari, is that in the last two months, these Iranian-backed militias have really stepped up their attacks on U.S. assets as they call for an end to the U.S. support of Israel and its war against Hamas and all the death and destruction that's happening in Gaza. So the U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Iraq and some 900 across the border in northeastern Syria. And the Pentagon says it's recorded 92 attacks, mostly using drones or rocket fire, on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria in these last weeks.

And like you said, Ari, you know, last week, rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as well. No one was injured in that attack. But the Pentagon says that more than 60 U.S. personnel have suffered minor injuries or even traumatic brain injuries from other attacks. And the U.S. is trying to get the Iraqi government to do more to protect U.S. diplomatic missions and personnel in the country.

SHAPIRO: Well, how much control does the Iraqi government have over Iranian-backed militias in Iraq?

SHERLOCK: Well, I think you've really got to the heart of the issue here. And it's a question I put to Thanassis Cambanis. He's an Iraq expert and the director of Century International, a think tank based in New York City.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: The war in Gaza has a disproportionate impact on Iraq because Iraq is a state of militias at its core. With each electoral cycle and with each formation of a new government, what we see is the government is weaker relative to the militias that really hold the deciding power of who rules Iraq and, crucially, who controls the country.

SHERLOCK: And he points out that the current prime minister, Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, was actually brought to power by these Iranian-backed militias. So he thinks Sudani may, therefore, not be as committed to countering Iranian influence as the U.S. would like, and that even if he were, there may not be a whole lot he and the Iraqi government can do to limit their influence simply because of their growing power there.

SHAPIRO: So what are the risks that this escalates even further than where things are now?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, the Iraqi PM, Sudani, he usually tries to be, at least publicly, upbeat about Iraq's future. So it might be a sign of how serious things are now that he actually said in a recent speech that Iraq is at, quote, "a critical juncture." And like I said, although there have been a lot of attacks on U.S. assets, for now, they're fairly limited in their impact. And the U.S. did hit some Iranian-backed militia operation centers in Iraq with airstrikes this week. But it's all quite calculated and careful for now. But the problem with these kind of attacks is that they can become extremely combustible, and what could be intended as a limited reprisal can quickly spiral out of control. And it could be that, you know, both sides end up in a war that they didn't intend.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Thank you for your reporting.

SHERLOCK: Thanks very much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ruth Sherlock
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.