On January 3rd, in the predawn hours local time, two vehicles carrying Iranian General Qassam Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a former member of the Iraqi parliament and the leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), which were traveling from Baghdad’s International Airport, were attacked with missiles by an American Reaper drone that killed the two military leaders and at least six other individuals traveling with them.
An early hint of the general’s ultimate fate may have been when the current U.S. president designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Corps (IRGC) of which the Soleimani led Quds Force is responsible for foreign operations, a foreign terrorist organization on April 8th. The designation of a part of a foreign military was unprecedented in that allowed the U.S. government to justify Soleimani’s assassination on the same grounds used in the killings of non-state actors Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Soleimani had a mixed record as a military and political leader. While he’s best known in the United States and allied countries for his work with Iraqi Shia militias during the war initiated by George W. Bush’s administration in 2003 and later as a leader in the multi-national fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in that country and in Syria, the general came to prominence for his successes in fighting the earlier Iran-Iraq war, a Western-sponsored Iranian national tragedy that cost the lives of a million Iranians and allowed the future general to prove himself a military leader of great personal courage, beloved by those who served with him and later his country as a whole.
Understanding this history, if there were a willingness to do so, could help foreign policy elites in Western capitals to understand the outpouring of affection for him in the wake of his assassination. It might also help them to understand that the killing was counterproductive, as many of the ordinary Iranians who had been involved in protests in part inspired by the desire to end the expensive foreign entanglements Soleimani’s Quds force was leading throughout the region, were probably among those who rallied around the flag after his death.
It was also a blow to those Iraqis who had been protesting Iranian influence in their country, turning the focus back to the United States.
A Quick Timeline
The strike that killed Soleimani was the biggest escalation yet in a series of ongoing tit for tat actions undertaken by the United States and the Islamic Republic that began after the current occupant of the White House officially pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) in early May, 2018 and his administration began placing wave after wave of harsh sanctions on the country, crippling its economy.
Although the two countries shared allies and had to have coordinated to some degree in the battle against IS, tensions between them have waxed and waned over the past 3 years, intensifying in late June when Iran shot down an American drone it claimed was illegally in its airspace.
U.S. officials insisted the unmanned vehicle was over international waters when it was brought down but thankfully the country’s government didn’t retaliate, with the U.S. president saying he called off an unspecified attack on the country moments before its launch.
Most recently, tensions increased yet again when a missile attack said by U.S. government officials to have come from Muhandis’ Iranian sponsored Kataib Hezbollah militia, struck an airbase used by U.S. forces in Kirkuk province on December 27th, killing an as yet unnamed military contractor and reportedly wounding several U.S. and Iraqi soldiers at the base. As some commentators have noted, no evidence of the militias’ involvement was provided by American officials and IS remnants have been said to be active in the area where the attack took place.
This was followed by what U.S. officials unironically called ‘defensive strikes’ two days later, killing at least 25 militia members and wounding 55 more, some in places far removed from where the attack the U.S. government said it was responding to, took place.
On December 31st, after funerals for those killed by the U.S. strikes, protesters, some of them reportedly wearing militia uniforms, breached the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, forcing embassy staff to hide within its walls. The embassy siege was believed to have been called by Muhandis’ group but the protesters were unarmed and there were no reported casualties. Nonetheless, the attack that killed Soleimani occurred within a few days of this incident.
What should have worried American officials the most about the embassy siege was barely noticed by the media: the Iraqi security forces protecting it did nothing to try and stop the protesters.
A dangerous precedent
Expressing the sentiments of most of the progressive left in the wake of the assassination was Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who wrote on Twitter, “Any member who voted for the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act]— a blank check — can’t now express dismay that Trump may have launched another war in the Middle East. My Amendment, which was stripped, would have cut off $$ for any offensive attack against Iran including against officials like Soleimani.”
Although he was famous as a man of war, at the time of his assassination, Soleimani was reportedly on a mission of peace, delivering a message from his country’s leadership in reply to an earlier one from Saudi Arabia regarding reducing tensions in the region. Part of a peace initiative undertaken by Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who spoke about it in the Iraqi parliament.
Despite the widespread fear that the assassination could touch off a war, cooler heads seem to have once again prevailed in Tehran, which notified the Iraqi government before sending rockets at U.S. bases in Ain Al-Asad and Erbil in Iraq in the early hours Wednesday morning, a show of strength with no reported casualties.
However, it’s important to remember that the many militias that receive varying levels of support from Iran in the region could take matters into their own hands in the coming weeks and months, creating an ever present danger of renewed hostilities, something that many both within the current U.S. administration, including the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and neoconservatives and liberal interventionists outside of it, seem to be hoping for.
One of the most despicable things about the whole incident is the fact that stocks in fossil fuel companies and arms manufacturers soared in the expectation of a wider war.
The problem with the assassination of a foreign general over the longer term should be obvious. Just as the illegal invasion of Iraq has led other countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey to invade their neighbors in violation of international law engaging in offensive wars, the assassination of a popular leader like Soleimani and the lack of evidence presented about imminent plots he was supposedly engaged in, may empower other countries to take similar actions in the future, a slippery slope indeed.