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Former U.S. Ambassador To Iraq Discusses Tensions In Baghdad

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Baghdad today, crowds that had attacked the U.S. Embassy said they'd made their point.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KELLY: You can hear the crowds there. American security forces fired tear gas in response. And eventually, militia leaders who organized the protest called on the crowd to leave. They did. They cleared out.

The unrest was sparked by U.S. airstrikes on Sunday. The U.S. says the strikes were in retaliation for an Iranian-backed militia rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor. Here is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking yesterday in an interview with Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

MIKE POMPEO: We will continue to hold the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable wherever we find their malign activity. And we'll make sure we have the resources to do so.

KELLY: All right. Well, to look at what these heightened tensions mean for U.S. interests in Iraq, we are joined by Doug Silliman. He was U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2016 and 2019. And he joins me now in the studio. Ambassador, welcome.

DOUG SILLIMAN: I'm very happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Are you surprised that these militia supporters were able to get as far as they did in terms of attacking the embassy?

SILLIMAN: Well, as ambassador, two of the things - two of my nightmare scenarios have happened to the embassy in the past week - first, losing an American contractor at an Iraqi base in the north of Iraq; but more importantly, a physical assault on the embassy. I do not believe that there is a more secure U.S. Embassy facility anywhere in the world than there is in Baghdad. The problem is, it is the host government that has the responsibility to protect diplomatic and consular facilities. So it is Iraqi police, Iraqi guards, Iraqi military who have the primary responsibility of keeping that compound safe. Yesterday, the Iraqis failed in that mission. The...

KELLY: What went through your mind as you watched the videos out of Baghdad these last day or two - watching fires being set at the embassy and windows being cracked and people making it - it's unclear exactly how far they - but penetrating the compound?

SILLIMAN: Well, what went through my mind first of all is that the Iraqi security services that were there to protect the compound didn't do so. It was only later in the day that the prime minister ordered the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service - the guys who you might have seen all dressed in black uniforms - come to protect the embassy. That said, the security of the embassy worked. People were able to get on top of the wall; they were able to break the doors of the outer perimeter. But And... got inside.

KELLY: Was the U.S. caught off guard here, though?

SILLIMAN: I can't imagine that we were caught off guard, given the fact that we knew that we were going to conduct multiple strikes against Iraqi targets in Iraq and in Syria. But I simply don't know. I assume there were some preparations ahead of time.

KELLY: Does the U.S. have some responsibility here, though, for not engaging Iraq as an ally and a partner more before carrying out these airstrikes inside Iraq?

SILLIMAN: This is actually a very good question, and I'll even take that back a step further - because the proximate cause of all of this was a very serious attack against U.S. and Iraqi forces who were on a base near the city of Kirkuk. These attacks were conducted by part - the official Iraqi government security service. And the Iraqi government has serially been unwilling or unable to take any actions to prevent these pro-Iranian groups from developing the capability in planning attacks against coalition forces or against diplomatic facilities.

KELLY: But again, does the U.S. have some responsibility here?

SILLIMAN: There are too many - too many antecedents to place blame on anyone. This is a, if you will, a game of chess where each side is trying to find advantage. And the Iranians probably didn't expect as extensive an American response, but now they seem to be trying to take advantage of it politically.

KELLY: The Pentagon has just announced it's sending 750 additional troops to the region immediately - the direct opposite of what these protesters were calling for, which is U.S. forces go home. Realistically, can the U.S. get out of Iraq anytime soon?

SILLIMAN: This is going to be a question for the administration - should the Iraqi Parliament and government ask that the U.S. leave. Unlike the period between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. and the coalition military is in Iraq for the express purpose of fighting ISIS and helping to train and institutionalize the Iraqi security forces. There are a lot of Iraqis who understand the worth of this coalition training. There are also a lot of Iraqis who would prefer not to see any foreign forces at all, despite the need.

The answer is - what the administration will do, I don't know. Iraq needs to decide, first of all, whether this is in Iraq's best interest. And what the administration needs to do first is find ways to convince Iraqis of the benefits of the coalition military presence.

KELLY: Doug Silliman - he was U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2016 and 2019. He is now president of the Arab Gulf States Institute. Ambassador, thanks.

SILLIMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.