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Iran Is Accused Of Being Behind Attack At U.S. Embassy In Iraq

NOEL KING, HOST:

Many of the protesters that had been camped out in front of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad are leaving. They're members of an Iraqi group that's closely aligned with Iran. And their leaders say they made their anger of U.S. airstrikes clear. The protesters attacked the embassy yesterday. Earlier, I talked to Ryan Crocker. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

RYAN CROCKER: Good morning, Noel.

KING: President Trump is very openly blaming Iran for this. This is happening in Iraq. How certain are you that Iran is responsible for these protests?

CROCKER: I don't think there is any question at all. Kata'ib Hezbollah is well known to us.

KING: The militia group, Kata'ib Hezbollah. Yeah.

CROCKER: Yeah. They didn't materialize yesterday. They have been a long-term Iranian proxy in Iraq. So the Iranian hand here is not really concealed.

KING: OK, fair enough. Does what is happening now outside of the embassy show a U.S. policy toward Iran that is working or one that is not working?

CROCKER: It is in a very complicated phase right now. The president has spoken about standing up to Iran in Iraq and elsewhere. The airstrikes several days ago indicated he's prepared to do that with force. What I ask however is, has the administration got a game plan here over the long term?

The Iranians certainly do. They are prepared for the long haul. They fought an eight-year war with Iraq, and it is on their border - their longest land border. Are we prepared for that same kind of long-term commitment in Iraq and against Iran? Or is this a one-off and we're making it up as we go along? Not clear to me yet what we're doing.

KING: I was going to ask - can I ask you to answer your own rhetorical question? Do you get the impression that we - that the United States has a long-term strategy here?

CROCKER: If we do, we have not enunciated it.

KING: OK. OK.

CROCKER: We have seen, at a time when we have said we are stepping up to Iranian excesses and challenges - and then we close our consulate in Basra. There have been reports on a plan to draw down substantially the American presence in the embassy, to cut the staff. That would hardly be interpreted as, again, standing up to Iran.

So the administration needs to figure out what it is going to do long term and then make that clear to the American people, to the Iranians and to others in the region. I hope they do have a long-term plan and it is based on a long-term commitment to our own interests in Iraq.

KING: If you were called upon to give advice on what to do over the long term, to bring more stability to this situation, what would you advise?

CROCKER: To make it clear that we do have long-term interests in Iraqi stability, that we will stand up for our security interests against immediate challenges, as we did with Islamic State, but that because it is over the long term, we are engaged there and we will remain engaged.

KING: Yesterday, this group Kata'ib Hezbollah apparently issued a statement saying their next step after the embassy is to pass a law in the Iraqi Parliament to legislate that the United States get out of Iraq. Now, I found that really interesting because it sounds like a peaceful step. What do you think?

CROCKER: Clearly actions in parliament are preferable to actions on the ground. And the fact that we're now seeing Kata'ib Hezbollah and supporters camped outside the walls, well, that's a lot better than having them inside the walls...

KING: Yeah.

CROCKER: ...Throwing rocks. At the same time, Kata'ib Hezbollah and its Iranian overlords are certainly aware that in 2014, as Islamic State surged through northern and western Iraq, the last thing the Iraqi people and indeed the Iraqi government wanted was for the U.S. to get out. They wanted the U.S. to come back. And I think we'll probably see some kind of drama in the parliament. Clearly, though, it will not be in the interests, I think, of the parliament or any aspect of the government of Iraq, to have the U.S. pull out.

KING: Very briefly, is it practical to get Iran to negotiate a new nuclear deal, which is the stated U.S. goal?

CROCKER: Well, not under current circumstances.

KING: OK, not going to happen the way things are. Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, sir, thank you so much.

CROCKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.