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Iran launches missile strikes in Iraq, raising fears about a widening conflict

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Iran has attacked the home of a leading businessman in the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan Region. The strike is stoking fears of a widening regional conflict as the war between Israel and Hamas continues, too. Iran claimed the seven missiles were aimed at a base for Israeli spy operations - a charge the Kurdish and Iraqi governments deny. NPR's Jane Arraf has more on the fallout of the attack.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The Kurdish city of Erbil is generally known as the safest city in Iraq - a place that bills itself to Americans and others as being open for business. Fueled by oil deals, the city is the most prosperous in the country, dotted with high-end restaurants and luxury high-rises. Late on Monday, Iranian missiles targeted the home of one of the main construction magnates behind that building boom, killing him and three other people, including his 11-month-old daughter and another prominent Kurdish Iraqi business leader. The prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, Masrour Barzani, speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, said he was shocked by the attack.

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PRIME MINISTER MASROUR BARZANI: What's surprising, we are not a part of this conflict. We don't know why Iran is retaliating against civilians of Kurdistan, especially in Erbil.

ARRAF: Iran accuses the Kurdistan Region of selling oil to Israel. Iraq doesn't recognize Israel, and the Kurds deny the oil deals. The U.S. condemned what it called the reckless airstrikes. In Davos, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down with Barzani to discuss the attack.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: It's a challenging time for everyone.

ARRAF: A challenging time for everyone.

The missile strike killed Peshraw Dizayee, the businessman behind Empire World, a multibillion-dollar residential complex whose firm was also involved in the oil industry. The U.S. said the missiles struck in the area of its consulate and a U.S. military base but made clear they were not the targets. The United States is facing new calls in Iraq to remove its remaining military forces, but the Kurdish leadership wants them to stay. Iraq's government is allied with Iran. And the prime minister, Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, owes his job to Iran-backed parties, but government leaders are furious over the attack.

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QASIM AL-ARAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Iraq's national security adviser, Qasim al-Araji, a commander of one of the biggest Iran-backed groups, toured the site of the attack and told reporters there was no basis to Iran's claim that it was a spy base. So what could make this worse? - retaliation by Kurdish security forces and/or U.S. forces based in Erbil. I spoke with former Iraqi President Barham Salih, who himself is a Kurdish politician. He says he doesn't see an armed response from the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government.

BARHAM SALIH: I think the KRG and, for that matter, the government of Iraq may not be in a position and is not well advised to do - to seek military confrontation and seek military response.

ARRAF: He said that would risk dragging Iraq into wider conflict as it tries to balance ties with Iran and the United States.

SALIH: I mean, it's one thing that one has to say about Iraq - it's never black and white.

ARRAF: In Iraq, with so many players and so much smoldering beneath the surface, the Iraqi government and the U.S. will need to contain this latest crisis to avoid a widening conflict.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
Tyler Bartlam