Surveying Damage At The Iraqi Base That Iran Attacked

Jan 13, 2020
Originally published on January 13, 2020 7:34 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I want to turn now to more on the fallout from that U.S. drone strike which killed both an Iranian general and also a senior Iraqi official. Let's think about what's happened since then. Iraq's government has called for U.S. troops to leave. The United States says it is not planning to do that. Iran, for its part, retaliated by striking an Iraqi airbase that houses U.S. forces. And NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from that base in western Iraq this morning. Jane, tell us exactly where you are and what you're seeing there.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, I'm at the al-Asad Air Base, which is about 200 miles from Baghdad - west of Baghdad. And right now, actually, I am next to a crater where one of those Iranian rockets hit. It's at least 10 feet deep. And if you're hearing clanging metal, which - you might in a bit - it's these sheets of metal that used to be the roof from this building. There was a huge building here. It was where drone operators lived. And it's now completely destroyed, just blackened metal with the beams fallen, twisted bits of building materials. The thing is that no one was hurt in this. And that's because we were told here they had indications early in the afternoon that there might be a strike. And then they had indications four to five minutes before the rockets actually hit that they were going to land. So at that point, everyone was under cover. Otherwise, they say, people would have died.

GREENE: Have U.S. officials been saying more about this Iranian attack.

ARRAF: Well, they've been saying essentially that it was - they've dismissed, basically, the thought that the Iranians did not intend casualties to be caused because while they wanted to send a message - they didn't want to escalate things. They say absolutely had they not received warnings, had they not dispersed the forces here. And this base still has about 1,500 American troops and 500 coalition troops from other countries on it. Then people would've been hurt. So they say, clearly, this was a very serious attempt, an attempt to kill Americans.

GREENE: Well, now we have the prime minister and parliament ordering U.S. troops to leave Iraq. I mean, what is the prospect now that that will happen, Jane?

ARRAF: That's a really interesting thing playing out because while the Iraqi government, parliament and the prime minister - who is a caretaker prime minister - has actually asked the U.S. government to send a team here to begin drafting a withdrawal plan, U.S. commanders that we speak with say they have not received any new mission. They're basically - it's still business as usual, although suspended. And by that, it means they still have the mission. They have not been told to begin a withdrawal. But they've basically suspended their operations. They're not training. They're not helping Iraqis fight ISIS. But there are still 1,500 troops here on this base. And what they're doing, we're told, is protecting the base and doing a lot of drills.

GREENE: And what do you hear from Iraqis about the prospect of the United States leaving if that becomes, you know, something that actually might happen?

ARRAF: So Iraq now is really polarized. There's the Iranian-backed militias, which basically, we've seen, control a large part of the security forces. And the thing is the militias are intertwined with parliament, with political parties, those - that's the main driving force for American forces to leave. And the prime minister is caught in the middle. But for instance, when I go down to Tahrir Square, where there has been anti-government protests since October, a lot of young Iraqis in particular tell me they want Americans to stay. They want good relations with Iran. They want good relations with America. And, you know, some of them go further and say they believe that the fact that American forces are still in Iraq means that they're protected somewhat from these militias that are trying to kill them. That probably is not true. But it does give them a certain comfort that U.S. forces are here, a lot of them tell me.

GREENE: NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq this morning. Jane, thanks a lot.

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