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U.S. Monitors Iran's Role In Helping Iraqi Fighters Take Back Fallujah

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's follow up on a phrase about Iraq. Yesterday, a correspondent described Iraq's effort to retake the city of Fallujah. He told us the forces challenging ISIS in Iraq include militias, quote, "controlled by Iran." That's the phrase - controlled by Iran. U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford served in both Iraq and Syria. He is now with the Middle East Institute, and he's on the line. Good morning, Ambassador.

ROBERT FORD: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how are these militias controlled by Iran?

FORD: Well, Iran provides many - not all - but many of them with equipment, with funds. They provide training, and they even have advisors with them on the ground.

INSKEEP: And why are they getting money from Iran and not the United States, which has certainly sent plenty of billions of dollars to Iraq over the years?

FORD: The Iranians have had relationships with some of these militias that date back 30 years, to the war between Saddam Hussein and Iran - the first Gulf War. And now, the Iranians maintain and are even strengthening those relationships with those particular Iraqi Shia militias as a way of exerting Iranian influence in Baghdad and in Iraq.

INSKEEP: And, of course, they've got a common religion there - Shia militias and Shia-dominated Iran. We've certainly heard about this before, ambassador - Iranian influence in Iraq. But what does it mean when you have this major offensive to try to beat ISIS - the United States has a big interest in this offensive - and it is Iranian-backed troops, Iranian-supplied troops, Iranian even directed troops who are doing the fighting?

FORD: Well, it's not only Iranian-backed militias that are doing the fighting, although they are certainly doing some of the fighting. And the big concern is that these militias, in the past, have committed war atrocities in this battle against the Islamic State. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have issued very detailed reports about those atrocities. And the fear is that such atrocities will aggravate secretary intentions and will actually help the Islamic State recruit new fighters.

INSKEEP: Oh, just reminding people, we're talking about Shia militias and a Sunni population in the Fallujah area. And Sunnis, of course - or rather ISIS is dominated by Sunni Muslims. Now, do Iran and the United States really have the same basic interests here?

FORD: Both the United States and Iran want to see the Islamic State contained and eliminated. But the United States' goal in Iraq over the long-term is to help Iraqis build a strong state, whereas the Iranian goal in Iraq is to ensure that there is a weak government in Baghdad under heavy Iranian influence. And so the Iranians are using these particular Shia militias that it helps - it is using them to create, if you will, Steve, a sort of state within the state. The Iranians did the same thing in Lebanon with Hezbollah.

INSKEEP: Just about 10 seconds left, ambassador. Does it bother you, as someone who's served in Iraq and Syria, that the U.S. would be leaning on Iran in this way?

FORD: I worry that we end up indirectly helping a side which is committing war atrocities and that will facilitate the Islamic State's recruitment when we need to undermine Islamic State recruitment.

INSKEEP: Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, now with the Middle East Institute. Thanks very much.

FORD: My pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.