AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Thousands of people continue to protest in the streets of Iraq. Their demands have upset a lot of powerful interests, especially those backed by neighboring Iran. Both Iraqi and U.S. observers are concerned about a confrontation that could spark a war. NPR's Jane Arraf has been speaking with people on all sides. She joins us now from Baghdad. And Jane, just to begin here, the protesters are calling for an end to corruption. They're calling for jobs and for more power-sharing by elites. So where does Iran come in?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, the protesters actually believe that it's Iran that's responsible for a lot of what's wrong in Iraq. They say those are corrupt politicians with ties to Iran, a political system now dominated by Iran-backed militias and security forces, where in some cases, those former militias are more powerful than the regular forces. So we've seen enraged protesters burning down Iranian consulates in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Their protests have already led to the fall of a prime minister who Iran approved of. Iraq is hugely important to Iran, and this is simply the biggest threat to Iranian influence here since 2003.
CORNISH: Now, I know you spoke with one of the key figures in all this, a prominent leader of one of the armed groups. Tell us a little more about him and what his message is.
ARRAF: So this is a guy named Qais al-Khazali, and he's leader of an Iran-backed group, one of the biggest, called Asaib Ahl al-Haq. I went to see him to get his reaction to new U.S. sanctions imposed on him, and he literally laughed them off. This is a guy who spent three years in an American prison and says he's proud of launching what he says were 5,000 attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in the past. And he says he doesn't think there is any problem between Shia groups.
QAIS AL-KHAZALI: (Non-English language spoken).
ARRAF: So basically, he says it's the U.S. and Israel that are trying to stir up trouble in Iraq. Now, that's the view of Iran-backed groups. What we're seeing on the ground, though, is quite different - protesters who say they want their country back.
CORNISH: Game this out a little. I mean, here you are getting warnings from U.S. and Iraqi officials that this could turn very ugly. What are their specific concerns?
ARRAF: Essentially, there's a lot at stake here - a lot of money, a lot of influence. So Iranian militias, nominally under control of the Iraqi government, hold a lot of power. And the big fear is that those Iranian-backed groups - both the ones under control, allegedly, of Iraqi security forces and others outside - will start fighting groups that don't have those ties.
And here's a warning sign we've seen. There is a cleric, a Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr - very influential, considered an Iraqi nationalist - and he supported the protests. His house in Najaf was hit by a drone attack. Now, it was known he wasn't in Najaf, but it's believed to be a warning. And on the U.S. side, a senior U.S. military official I spoke with this week said that Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. bases have been increasing. He said the U.S. won't just sit around waiting for Americans to be killed. So there's also the fear that the U.S. could be drawn into this.
CORNISH: How are people trying to keep things from escalating?
ARRAF: So Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called on the government to rein in security forces, but that's tough because they're not fully in control of security forces. And on the political front, Parliament is trying to come up with a new prime minister. And lo and behold, a big deal-Iranian commander, Qasem Soleimani, is believed to be back in Baghdad. He's a frequent visitor. And he's meant to be trying to exert Iranian influence on who that next prime minister is. So it's clear that Iran isn't just going to step back here.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from Baghdad.
Thank you for your reporting.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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