RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria are having a perhaps unexpected effect in Iraq. Demonstrators gathered yesterday across that country to protest the military action in neighboring Syria. The Iraqi government calls the strikes on suspected chemical weapons sites a dangerous escalation of the conflict. NPR's Jane Arraf is in Baghdad and joins us now.
So Jane, why is U.S. military action in Syria driving Iraqis out onto the streets?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, part of it is because Syria is Iraq's neighbor. But mostly, they're in the streets because this was a demonstration called by Muqtada Sadr. He's a very influential Shiite cleric best known in the U.S. as leading the Mahdi Army, which fought U.S. forces after Saddam was toppled. So he's now emerged as an Iraqi nationalist, and he called for these demonstrations yesterday in several cities. The biggest demonstration was in Najaf.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in foreign language).
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
ARRAF: Those protesters are chanting, no, America, and, leave Syria alone. They also burned American and Israeli flags. In Baghdad, they chanted, stop destroying Syria as you've destroyed our country. So Rachel, they weren't huge protests, but they do underscore the apprehension here that the U.S. could be stumbling into a wider war in the same way it lost control of events in Iraq. There are disturbing echoes of U.S. military action in Iraq to many Iraqis.
MARTIN: So what about the official Iraqi government? What have they been saying about all this?
ARRAF: Well, the foreign minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, has called them a dangerous escalation - the airstrikes - and he says they could increase extremism. That matters to Iraq because it's pretty much militarily defeated ISIS, but it worries that the group could be revived. A prime ministry spokesman said troops at the border with Syria were on high alert. And last, on the regional level, the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia yesterday discussed the strikes, and Iraq was one of the very few countries there that condemned them. It was an interesting meeting because Iran, while not there, is always a major player in this, and Saudi Arabia and others see Iran as the biggest threat in the region. For Iraq, Iran is their neighbor, and they have close, if complicated, relations.
MARTIN: So, I mean, Donald Trump himself drew this connection between Iraq and the U.S. action in Syria when he said after the strikes outside Damascus, mission accomplished, which we all remember was what George W. Bush uttered after a particular foray into Iraq, and clearly, the mission there was not accomplished. So how are Iraqis perceiving that?
ARRAF: Yeah, that was a terrible sense of deja vu to many Iraqis. And that's particularly since the airstrikes in Syria, like the invasion of Iraq, were done without a clear legal basis. So the U.S. at the time said it was targeting Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and it turned out there were no active weapons programs. Iraq and others are calling for international investigations over those suspected chemical attacks. But really, the biggest problem here is the belief of many Iraqis - and let's face it, Arabs in general - that the real goal of the U.S. is to weaken and destroy the Middle East. And in countries like Jordan, which has taken in more than a million Syrian refugees, the question is really, what could these airstrikes - will do now when the country's been torn apart over the past seven years?
MARTIN: And we should just clarify, George W. Bush never uttered the words mission accomplished, but we all remember that banner on the aircraft carrier. NPR's Jane Arraf reporting from Baghdad. Thanks so much, Jane.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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