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Trump’s Killing of Qassem Soleimani Means “Rules of the Game Have Totally Changed” in Middle East

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The Iraqi Parliament voted Sunday to expel all U.S. military forces from Iraq. President Trump responded by threatening to impose sanctions on Iraq “like they’ve never seen before.” Iraq has already been the target of some of the harshest sanctions the world has even seen. U.S.-backed sanctions killed more than a million Iraqis, including over 500,000 children, between 1990 and 2003. From Baghdad, we talk to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the fallout of the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad last week. On Sunday, the Iraqi Parliament voted to expel all U.S. military forces from Iraq. President Trump responded by threatening to impose sanctions on Iraq, quote, “like they’ve never seen before.” Iraq has already been the target of some of the harshest sanctions the world has ever seen. U.S.-backed sanctions killed more than a million Iraqis, including half a million children, between 1990 and 2003.

We go now to Baghdad, where we’re joined by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. His latest piece is headlined “Iran ends nuclear deal commitments as fallout from Suleimani killing spreads.”

Ghaith, we spoke to you last week in Turkey. You made it to Baghdad. Talk about what you’re seeing, the response in the streets to the assassination of the Iranian leader at Baghdad airport last Friday.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, Amy, good morning. First I would like to — a slight correction: The piece was written by my colleague, Martin Chulov, and not me.

But I arrived in Baghdad. I arrived in Baghdad just as the day when the funeral for General Qassem Soleimani and his Iraq associate, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was taking place. I stood there among, I would say, tens of thousands of people. Many of them were militiamen. Many of them were waving the flags of their respective militias. It was a very, very impressive scene, I have to say. I mean, these militias, we have to remember, the last three months, were on the back foot. They were accused of oppressing demonstrators. A lot of the demonstrations in Baghdad were targeting these militiamen as oppressive, corrupt, part of an Iranian — a pro-Iranian government. But since the assassination, we’ve seen these militias come back into the street in force. As we’ve said, the narrative changed from demonstrations versus the government into Iraq is in the middle of a confrontation. You like it or you don’t, but Iraq is in the middle of a confrontation between the United States and Iran. And the question those militias and politicians are asking is: Either you are with the United States or you are with Iran.

And that was, again, the scene we’ve seen in the Parliament. So, the Parliament held an emergency session to, quote, “expel all foreign troops,” and especially the Americans, from Iraq. And we’ve seen the people who attended, the parliamentarians [inaudible] — the Sunnis and the Kurds boycotted the session. So this is where you see the clear divide within Iraq at the moment. And then you’ve seen even some elements within the Shia bloc, like Muqtada al-Sadr, who for the past few months was trying to position himself as, if not anti-Iranian, anti-Iranian-power in Iraq. Suddenly, all these different Shia factions stumbling among themselves trying to prove who is pro-Iran further. So, Muqtada issues a statement calling for the declaration of or the formation of international resistance brigades against the Americans. You see the parliamentarians chanting, “Yes, yes to Soleimani! No, no to America!” in the Iraqi Parliament. And then they passed a resolution, which is — it’s not clear as ending American presence in Iraq immediately. It basically calls to end the agreement upon which America started providing aid to Iraq to fight ISIS in 2014. But it leaves in place the Strategic Framework Agreement that Iraq signed with America in 2008.

But for the consumption, for the local consumption, the optics are clear. These powers, these Shia militias, these different forces in Iraq are willing to go even further than the measured Iranian response we’ve heard up until today. They’re willing to go and declare themselves as soldiers in defense of Iran and Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith, can you comment on this new information that’s come to light about the timing of Soleimani’s assassination Friday morning? Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has revealed he had plans to meet with Soleimani on the day he was killed to discuss a Saudi proposal to defuse tension in the region. Mahdi said, quote, “He came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi Arabia to Iran” — Saudi Arabia, obviously, a well-known enemy of Iran. Was he set up? Talk about the significance of this.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, it is very significant if it’s actually General Qassem Soleimani came to Iraq to deliver this message, if it was actually there was a process of negotiations in the region. We know that Abdul-Mahdi and the Iraqi government, in general, over the last year had been trying to position Iraq as this middle power, as this power where both — you know, as a country that has a relationship with both Iran and the United States. In that awkward place Iraq found itself in, Iraq has tried to maximize on this. So they started back in summer and fall, when there was an escalation between Iran and the United States, when Iran shot down an American drone. We’ve seen Adel Abdul-Mahdi fly to Iran, try to mediate. We’ve seen Adel Abdul-Mahdi open channels of communications with the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia.

So, if it actually, the killing of General Soleimani, ended that peace initiative, it will be kind of disastrous in the region, because, as Narges was saying earlier, it is — you know, Pompeo is speaking about Iran being this ultimate evil in the region, as this crescent of Shias, as if they just arrived in the past 10 years in the region. The fact if we see Iran’s reactions, it’s always a reaction to an American provocation. You’ve seen the occupation of Iraq in 2003. You’ve seen Iran declared as an “axis of evil.” So, if you see it from an Iranian perspective, it’s always this existential threat coming from the United States. And I don’t think there is a more existential threat than in past year. So, yes, I know — I mean, I think Adel Abdul-Mahdi and the Iraqi government were trying to find this middle ground, which I think is totally lost, because even Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the person who was trying to find this middle ground, was the person who proposed this law yesterday in the Parliament to expel all American troops from the country.

And I would like to add like another thing. The killing of Qassem Soleimani ended an era in which both Iran and the United States coexisted in Iraq. So, from 2013, '14, we, as journalists, we've seen on the frontlines how the proxies of each power have been helping each other. So we’ve seen Iranian advisers helping the American-trained Iraqi Army unit or counterterrorism unit in the fight against ISIS. In the same sense, we’ve seen American airstrikes on threats to these — kind of to ISIS when it was threatening these militias. That coexistence, it didn’t only come from both having a — sharing an enemy, which is ISIS, or Daesh, but also these were the rules of the game. These were the rules in which Qassem Soleimani could travel openly in Iraq. I mean, remember, Qassem Soleimani arrived in Baghdad airport, where half of it is an American base. Qassem Soleimani could travel openly in Iraq. He took selfies. People took his pictures. That didn’t happen in secret. Qassem Soleimani was not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi hiding in a cave or moving stealthily through the country. These movements are — he stayed in the Green Zone. So, all this happened because there was an understanding between the Americans and the Iranians. So, if the Americans wanted to keep their bases in Iraq, the Iranians would have the freedom to move. And with the killing of Soleimani, I think the rules of the game have totally changed.

So now I think the first victim of the assassination will be the American bases in Iraq. I don’t see any way where the Americans can keep their presence as they did before the assassination of Soleimani. And even the people in the streets, even the people who opposes Iran, who opposes the presence of Iranian militias in power and politics, the corruption of these pro-Iranian parties, even those people would look at these American bases now as not as a force that came to help them in the fight against ISIS, but a force that’s dragging them into a war between Iran and the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump said, “We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” meaning the Air Force base. So, what do you see happening with these U.S. troops? I mean, the Iraqi government years ago also said they had to leave, and they didn’t.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, one thing I would like to comment, when President Trump said the Iraqi — sanctions that the Iraqis have never seen, we’ve seen sanctions, Mr. President. We’ve seen hunger. We’ve seen — I mean, I lived through so many wars in this country, but I don’t think there was anything more traumatizing than the sanctions, where you couldn’t get medicine, you couldn’t get pencils, you couldn’t get even papers to draw on in school. So the sanctions devastated this country more than any war the country has been through. So, yes, we’ve seen sanctions.

Secondly, there are two kinds of American presence here. And again, a lot of the Parliament resolution yesterday was for local consumption and for theatrics and to show support for the Iranians. So, you have the American bases in the country, and these are part of the strategic agreement with the United States in which they train Iraqi Army, there is a — train the Iraqi Air Force, Iraqi F-16 squadrons based on these bases. And then there is the American troops that arrived in the country back in 2014, when Prime Minister Abadi at that time sent a letter, and a law passed by the Parliament, asking for an aid and assistance in the fight against ISIS. Now, President Trump himself said he wanted these troops out. It’s weird that he will sanction a country for doing what he actually wanted to do.

But in any case, the awkwardness started when Americans brought troops to Iraq out of Syria and said they’re positioning them in Iraq just to counter the presence of Iranians. That’s when Iraq found itself in a very awkward position, pulled between Iran and the United States. So, I can’t see a way — if Iraqi government says these troops that came in 2014 should leave, I don’t see how these troops will stay in the country. The bases is a different issue. No one is talking about the bases, and no one is talking about the strategic agreement with the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a possible ISIS resurgence in Iraq? Actually, the Shia forces, the Iran-backed forces, were fighting ISIS.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, ISIS has already a resurgence in Iraq. There are lots of places north of Baghdad, between Kirkuk and Salah ad Din, in a triangle called Hawija, where ISIS are active. They are, you know, doing their own attacks. So, yes, these Shia forces were formed to fight against ISIS, as well as these American troops that came in to fight against ISIS. But ISIS at the moment seems to be so in the back spot. No one is thinking about ISIS anymore. Everyone is thinking about how they can maneuver and maneuver their own troops and confront each other. So, this is the biggest anxiety.

And I keep on talking about this Iraqi anxiety in the streets of Baghdad. No one would like to see — I mean, none of the people I talk to in the streets want to see themselves back again under sanctions, fodder for war between Iran and the United States. Already there’s an anxiety that these calls for the reformation of militias, for attacks on the United States, attacks on those who collaborate with the United States. We’ve been through this. This was the story of the past decade. It’s strange that we enter a new decade, and we just repeat the same story, the same narrative, only in a bigger — in a bigger way.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Ghaith, for being with us. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is the Iraqi correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.

When we come back from break, we’ll hear the response of New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I caught up with her here in New York this weekend. And also, we’ll hear from a man who’s trying to stop war with Iran, who feels he was instrumental in leading to the war in Iraq: the chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Stay with us.

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