MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Baghdad today, hundreds of Iraqis gathered at the spot where a U.S. drone killed the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi paramilitary leader. The crowd was there to mark 40 days since those deaths, deaths for which Iran retaliated with missile strikes against U.S. troops. Meanwhile in Iraq, the political fallout continues.
NPR's Jane Arraf joins me now from Baghdad. Hey, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So I know you have just hours ago landed back in Iraq, and you drove out from the airport on that same road where Soleimani was killed. Tell me about that and the ceremony that I just described that unfolded there today.
ARRAF: So this route from the airport - it was beautified in a project. So on one side, there's palm trees with colored lights; on the other side, a concrete wall lined with Iraqi art. Now there's shrapnel that's left thousands of holes in the concrete and the art and the pavement. And what they've done is cover up a lot of those shrapnel holes or cover them with plexiglass to preserve them so people can see them.
There were huge photos of General Soleimani, the Iranian commander, and smaller ones of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis - he was the Iraqi security official who was killed along with four others - and big signs saying, this is the site of the American crime. There were a lot of members of Iran-backed militias there, and there were women chanting.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).
ARRAF: They were also saying, death to America, which is actually pretty rare in Iraq. I asked one of them what she meant by that, and she said the U.S. has brought nothing but disaster to Iraq since 2003.
KELLY: That chanting sounds remarkably similar to what I heard when I was on a reporting trip to Iran last month. And that, plus the detail you just mentioned - that Iran-backed militias were there at the ceremony in Iraq today - prompts me to ask, do we know who organized this ceremony?
ARRAF: Well, al-Muhandis, who is the Iraqi official who was killed, was the deputy leader of paramilitary forces that are now part of Iraqi security forces. And many of those forces are Iran-backed. So they were the main driver behind this commemoration. These militias also have political wings in parliament, a lot of them. I spoke with one of them, a member of parliament from one of the biggest militias - one of the biggest Iran-backed militias. It's called Asaib Ahl al-Haq - League of the Righteous. And he said they were collecting signatures in parliament to put a permanent shrine up there on the airport road. They want foreigners to see this, and they want pilgrims to come.
Now, the leader of his militia is on the U.S. terrorism list, and he has said in the past he's proud of his attacks on Americans and other forces when the U.S. was occupying Iraq. And this member of parliament, Hassan Salem, said they'll continue to try to get rid of U.S. forces.
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HASSAN SALEM: (Non-English language spoken).
ARRAF: He's basically saying that Iraq doesn't need U.S. forces anymore. It doesn't need anyone. It doesn't need advisers. He says they can handle it themselves.
KELLY: So what are the prospects for U.S. troops and whether they will stay on in Iraq?
ARRAF: So long-term, really unclear. In the short term, there are still several thousand U.S. forces here. They've scaled down their operations - the joint operations - both against ISIS with the Iraqis and training missions. But they are indeed still here and still doing some joint cooperation.
Now, President Trump has said that if Iraq kicks out the U.S. troops, then there will be sanctions imposed on them. And it's a very delicate subject. It's one of the things that the incoming prime minister, who's now compiling a Cabinet, will have to deal with because there's a lot of opposition to this, particularly since the killing of Soleimani.
KELLY: NPR's Jane Arraf reporting there from Baghdad. Thank you, Jane.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.