RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Iraq overnight, mortars hit the U.S. Embassy compound. There was damage but no reported serious injuries. The attack threatens to increase the already high tension between the U.S. and Iraq over Iranian-backed militias operating in that country. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Baghdad. Jane, just tell us the details, any that you can, about the attack. What do we know?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thanks, Rachel. Well, I heard the explosions and then the take-cover warning, the sirens that sound from the embassy. But this is a fairly regular occurrence - small rocket attacks or mortars fired into the Green Zone. But they very rarely actually hit the embassy. This one did. Iraqi officials are saying that the mortars - and they were mortars - fired into the Green Zone, hit the embassy compound and damaged a dining facility and a gym.
So the embassy is pretty much under lockdown - not a lot of people moving around, not a lot of staff there that aren't essential. So casualties were minimized. There is one person believed to have been slightly wounded in this.
MARTIN: So how might this play into the already fraught political situation in Iraq?
ARRAF: Well, it's potentially really quite alarming because tensions are already really high, and people fear that one attack, like this for instance, could be the spark that would set things off again between the U.S. and Iran, which is believed to be attacking the U.S. and the embassy through its militia proxies here. The Iraqi prime minister has issued a statement saying that this attack threatened to turn Iraq into a battleground, and the former Iraqi foreign minister is blaming this on what he calls unruly militias.
So the backdrop to this and a lot of the recent tension between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq has been that the Iraqi government is clearly unable to control these militias that are now officially part of security forces. In a statement, the prime minister said it's particularly bad, this attack on the embassy, while he says he has started the procedure to ask U.S. forces to withdraw from the country.
ARRAF: We were told that's not the case actually...
ARRAF: ...That that isn't actually happening.
MARTIN: OK. So put this into the broader context, then, for us, Jane, because over the weekend, there was this crackdown on anti-government protesters, huge protests against U.S. forces Friday. Obviously, there's a caretaker government there right now. What does all of this say to you?
ARRAF: Yeah. On the surface, it kind of sounds like chaos, doesn't it? But the battle lines are being drawn here. There's a very prominent Shiite cleric, Muqtada Sadr, who actually waged battle against U.S. forces in 2004. He has turned himself into a very prominent political leader. And he's in Iran. He organized a big protest against U.S. forces Friday, calling for the removal of U.S. troops. And other Iran-backed militias want the same. But he has actually said that he won't attack the U.S. while this process is underway.
So all of this means that there are forces that are not under the control of even the traditional Iran-backed militias, or they're splintering. And on the protesters' side, anti-government protests, Sadr withdrew his support for them. Security forces launched a huge crackdown over the weekend, wounding dozens of them and killing at least one protester. And that's just part of the backdrop to what's going on in Baghdad these days.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Jane Arraf watching it all for us. Thank you so much, Jane. We appreciate it.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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