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Pro-Iran militias in Iraq grow increasingly hostile toward the U.S.

It has been one year since Iranian Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated at Baghdad airport by an American drone, and tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been heating up over the past few weeks. Iraqi militias, with ties to Iran, still want revenge. Special correspondent Jack Hewson reports, and Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tensions between the U.S. and Iran, as we just mentioned, have been heating up over the past few weeks, as the one-year anniversary approached of the American killing of a top Iranian general in Iraq. Militias there with ties to Iran still want revenge.

    This past weekend, Iraqis converged and demonstrated their opposition to the United States.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Jack Hewson has this report from Baghdad.

  • Jack Hewson:

    Thousands gathered at Baghdad's Tahrir Square to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of Qasem Soleimani by an American drone strike on Baghdad's Airport Road.

    Soleimani ran much of Shia Iran's military operations in the region, as head of the elite Quds Force. Reviled as a terrorist by the U.S. and many in the region, he was celebrated in equal measure by others. Riding with him that night was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of largely Shia paramilitaries, many with strong ties to Iran.

    The PMF were instrumental in the fight against the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

    And for PMF supporters like Hussein Ali, the killings are a point of great bitterness.

  • Hussein Ali (through translator):

    After this achievement and the Iraqi victory over ISIS, America came to kill these two leaders.

  • Jack Hewson:

    The U.S. kept troops in country following the 2018 destruction of the ISIS caliphate inside Iraq to press the offensive against remnants of the group — of equal importance, though, using Iraq as a strategic base against Iran.

    Rocket attacks against U.S.-staffed installations began to increase.

    Very few people want to take responsibility for the rocket attacks against the American Embassy, but, as you can see from the public opinion here, there is significant appetite for more of it. President Trump has said, if one American is killed in the course of these attacks, then there will be reprisals.

    And, as long as that's the case, there could be significant escalation.

    The assassination was the peak of a series of strikes and counterstrikes between the U.S. and Iran and pro-Iranian groups in late 2019 and early last year, a proxy conflict on Iraqi soil. In response, the Iraqi Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution to eject U.S. troops.

  • Hussein Ali (through translator):

    We want these decisions to be implemented. The people voted on the decision to remove the American forces. And we want to remove all American forces peacefully. But if they are not achieved by peaceful means, then the people will resist.

  • Jack Hewson:

    With 2,500 U.S. troops still in country, that resistance is made reality by continued attacks on convoys and lands in the form of rockets launched on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

    The U.S. reportedly threatened to evacuate its embassy here, among the largest in the world, last fall. The last attack was on December 20, as eight rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy. Red tracers from the embassies defense system returned fire.

    No group has claimed responsibility, but government forces arrested members of a prominent pro-Iranian faction called Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, or AAH. In response to the arrests, masked men claiming to be members of AAH made threats against Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, posted on social media.

    AAH spokesperson Mahmoud al-Rubaie denied the group's involvement, either with the attack or the video threats, and said that one of their arrested associates had been forced to confess.

  • Mahmoud al-Rubaie (through translator):

    They tortured him in order to extract a confession from him that he is a participant in this operation and that works with rockets. This matter is all a lie. There is nothing of this subject.

  • Jack Hewson:

    The Iraqi security forces denied claims of torture.

    But the topic of who is behind the attacks against Americans in Iraq is of ongoing debate amongst Baghdad's community of political insecurity analysts.

    Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at The Century Foundation.

  • Sajad Jiyad:

    Certainly, that's what we have seen throughout 2020, The smaller, newer kind of groups that have been established outside the PMF framework, there's been concern that there's not enough command-and-control over these groups, and the fact that they seem to be a bit more dangerous and reckless.

  • Jack Hewson:

    And these new subgroups may not be acting in the interests of Iran itself.

    Soleimani's replacement, Esmail Qaani, visited Iraq in November and is reported to have discouraged paramilitaries from attacking U.S. bases in the last days of the Trump administration.

  • Sajad Jiyad:

    I don't think they want to escalate. I don't think the Iranians are in that position at this moment.

    I think it's important for the Iranians for have that balance between keeping pressure up on the U.S., meeting the demands and the messaging for domestic purposes, and also reminding and giving space to the next U.S. administration to enter into serious negotiations with them.

  • Jack Hewson:

    It's that delicate balance and capacity for miscalculation that has many here and in the region still on edge.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jack Hewson in Baghdad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to discuss that tension further, I'm joined by Nick Schifrin.

    So, Nick, we know there were no attacks over the anniversary this weekend, but Iran has made two significant moves, and so has the State Department today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker, and Iran enriched up to 20 percent uranium at its Fordow nuclear plant. That lowers the so-called breakout time if Iran wanted to create a nuclear weapon.

    Both moves, Judy, remind the incoming Biden administration of Iran's leverage points and priorities ahead of expected diplomatic talks. But the Trump administration is not done yet. It sanctioned 17 Iranian companies today, on top of 1,500 people and entities already sanctioned.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, then looking over the last few days, what steps did the U.S. take in advance of the Soleimani killing anniversary, and how high was the concern?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior administration, military, and Iraqi officials told me they were very concerned that a militia in Iraq would attack the U.S.

    And so the administration was trying to send a unified message of deterrence to Iran. First, there was a presidential Twitter threat, and then a rare photo released by the Navy of a submarine sailing off Iran's coast, and then B-52s sent to the Middle East.

    But, after that, the Pentagon ordered the Nimitz aircraft carrier home from the Middle East. A senior military official says — tells me that the decision was made over the advice of military leaders, who said bringing the Nimitz home would send Iran mixed signals.

    Administration officials say they were trying to send a calibrated message that the U.S. would respond militarily if Iran did attack and kill a U.S. service person, but didn't actually want to go to war.

    But then, Judy, the mixed messages got even more mixed. The Pentagon announced that the Nimitz would stay in the region after all. A military official tells me that the White House made a last-minute decision that surprised even the Pentagon.

    I have talked to independent analysts about all this back-and-forth, and they say this is, frankly, bordering on incompetence. And a senior administration official admits to me that there wasn't any strategic sense behind suddenly keeping the Nimitz in the region, because there was no new intelligence that would require it to stay.

    But, bottom line, Judy, the Nimitz remains in the region, as do the tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, a lot of drama and so much to follow in these first days of the new year.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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