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At the funeral for Iran-backed militia commander killed in U.S. drone strike in Iraq

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, Iraqis buried a commander of a powerful Iran-backed militia killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last night. That airstrike was the latest in what the U.S. says is retaliation for the killing of three American soldiers in an attack on a U.S. base in Jordan last month. NPR's Jane Arraf attended the funeral ceremony, and she's with us from Baghdad. Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about who this commander was and how he was killed.

ARRAF: Well, Abu Baqir Al-Saadi was a senior commander in Kataib Hezbollah. That's one of the most powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq. The imam speaking at the ceremony praised him for being involved in what he said were 25% of the attacks by the anti-U.S. coalition since the war began. Last night, as Al-Saadi was driving down a crowded street in east Baghdad, a U.S. drone targeted his vehicle with a missile which essentially incinerated the passengers inside. The U.S. said it killed him because he was personally involved in attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets.

SHAPIRO: And what's the reaction been so far?

ARRAF: Well, this is so serious that the main players seem to be weighing their options. A lot of that is because the Iraqi government is an ally of the United States. But at the same time, Ari, some militias attacking U.S. forces are actually under the umbrella of the Iraqi government. And this is all happening while the U.S. and Iraq have begun talks on what the U.S. calls a transition and Iraq calls a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Iraq's government mostly let the military speak for it after this attack. Military spokesman General Yehia Rasool had this to say about what he called an irresponsible and illegal U.S. killing.

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YEHIA RASOOL: (Through interpreter) This trajectory compels the Iraqi government more than ever to terminate the mission of this coalition, which has become a factor for instability and threatens to entangle Iraq in the cycle of conflict.

ARRAF: Basically, he's saying that, when it comes to U.S. military help, Iraq has had enough.

SHAPIRO: And what about reaction from the militia itself?

ARRAF: Kataib Hezbollah just a few days ago said it would suspend attacks on the U.S. because it didn't want to put the Iraqi government in a difficult position. But now that the United States has assassinated one of its commanders in Baghdad, it's not clear that's going to hold. As we were waiting outside one of the militia headquarters for Al-Saadi's coffin to be carried out, we spoke with the Kataib Hezbollah spokesman, Mohammed Mohi. He said the U.S. would pay a high price for killing a senior leader.

MOHAMMED MOHI: (Through interpreter) We will confront the United States and not only expel it from Iraq, but from the entire region.

ARRAF: Well, he said the leadership of Kataib Hezbollah and the joint leadership of the anti-U.S. coalition would meet to decide the form, timing and location of their response to the killing.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what the larger stakes are here.

ARRAF: Well, there's so much at stake here, Ari - for one, whether these repercussions from the war in Gaza descend into a wider conflict between Iran and the U.S., which has played out in Iraq, and, for another, the future of U.S. forces here and in neighboring Syria - and the question of whether ISIS, the militant Sunni group that took over parts of Iraq and Syria decade ago, will resurface without U.S. forces here. We spoke at the funeral with Iraq's national security adviser, Qasim al-Araji. He told us that the assassination would hasten the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq. He said he believed they'd be gone within the next year.

QASIM AL-ARAJI: (Through interpreter) Certainly this is an assault, a violation of sovereignty and an attempt to undermine the dialogue between Iraq and the international coalition. This incident will reinforce the necessity of ending the international coalition's mission.

ARRAF: He also said Iraq now was capable of fighting ISIS on its own, but it's really neighboring Syria where ISIS is re-emerging and could again threaten Iraq that worries the U.S.

SHAPIRO: Thank you so much. That is NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.