On January 3rd, the US used drone strikes to assassinate the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, at Baghdad Airport. The airstrike also killed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and several other individuals.
Who were Soleimani and Muhandis?
Soleimani was the head of the Iranian Quds Force. The Quds Force is the branch of the Iranian military that implements its ‘forward defense’ strategy. Soleimani got his military start during the Iran/Iraq War in the 80s. In recent years, Soleimani and the Quds Force fought the Islamic State and other Sunni terror groups in Iraq and Syria. Soleimani put together militias of local Iraqi and Syrian Shia to fight against the Islamic State in their countries. While Trump and the US often get credit in Western media for the defeat of IS, in the Middle East, the people see Soleimani as the hero of the war.
Muhandis was a member of the Iraqi parliament before the rise of IS. After the IS started to threaten the Shia areas in Iraq, the country’s Shia leadership called for the formation of Shia militias to fight against IS, as the Iraqi Army had lot a lot of territory to IS. Along with Soliemani, Muhandis was key to forming the Shia militias in Iraq that fought against IS. After the defeat of the IS the Iraqi government dictated that the Shia militias – including PMFs – were now a part of the Iraqi Defense Department and under the direction of the Iraqi prime minister.
A former US intelligence officer describes Muhandis like an Iraqi general, “The Iraqi PMU commander who died with Soleimani was Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. He was a member of a Shia militia that had been integrated into the Iraqi armed forces. IOW, we killed an Iraqi general. We killed him without the authorization of the supposedly sovereign state of Iraq.”
It is not clear if Trump intended to target Muhandis or if he was collateral damage.
Why is it important?
General Soleimani is a military official of a government the US is not officially at war with. The US is in an alliance with the Shia government of Iraq and Muhandis is part of the Iraq government’s Security forces. This creates a lot of questions surrounding the legality of the airstrikes and if Trump abused his power.
Soleimani and Muandis are important figures in the Middle East. Both men were very important to the fight against the Islamic State and are seen by people in the region as the heroes who defeated the Islamic State. Soleimani is one of the most popular figures in Iran. Iranian experts have compared his stature in Iraq to American WWII heroes Eisenhower and Patton.
The assassination of Soleimani will exacerbate the tensions with Iran. Trump ruined the Nuclear Deal put together by Obama. His maximum pressure campaign has not worked and the tensions with Iran are increasingly turning into a violent conflict.
Soleimani’s stature in Iran will create pressure among the people for some kind of response from Iran. Much like American’s would if a top American official was killed. Trump has now threatened to strike 52 Iranian targets if Iran responds. This is a set up for escalation to war.
The killing of Soleimani – especially with the PMF commander and in Baghdad – has really upset the Iraqis. Iraq did not authorize the strike and see it as a violation of its sovereignty.
Iraq is in a dangerous situation with protesters recently forcing out the prime minister. The protests were directed at the Iraqi government, corruption, and Iranian influence in Iraq. Over 450 protesters were killed by Iraqi security forces over six weeks. The protesters were calling for much-needed election and corruption reform.
There is a lot of instability, poverty, and violence. As the tensions between the US and Iran turn more violent, at least some of it will play out and further destabilize Iran.
Notes on the breakdown of Iraq/Iran
Iraq has a majority Shia Arab population ~60%, ~20% Sunni Arabi, ~20% Kurdish.
Saddam Hussein long ruled the country as a secular Sunni military dictator. He suppressed any opposition but particularly that of Shia and Kurds. Since the US invasion in 2003 and installing a democracy in Iraq, the Shia have ruled the country.
Iran has a majority Persian Shia population and is ruled by a Shia religious government. There are minority Sunni and Kurdish populations.
After the Iraq War, the Iraqi government was dominated by the Shia. The Iraqi Shia were friendly with the Shia government of Iran. This change was a huge benefit to Iran, as Saddam Hussein was brutally opposed to Iran and killed thousands of Iranians, and Iraqi Shia, with chemical weapons.
In 2011, the agreement the US had with the new government of Iraq to keep US forces in the country expired and Obama withdrew most US forces.
By 2014, the Islamic State had grown powerful enough in Syria it was able to take Sunni majority cities in Iraq. The Iraqi military – which was not mostly Shia – largely abandoned the cities to IS. The Islamic State was then able to threaten both the capital of Syria and Iraq.
Both the US and Iran entered the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, Iran was aligned with the Syrian government and the US was aligned with the Syrian Kurds. The US saw the Syrian government/Iranian alliance as nefarious and an enemy. In Iraq, both the US and Iran aligned with the Iraq government. The US provided air support and deployed 5,000 troops to Iraq to aid the Iraqi Army. Iran helped arm, fund, train, and guide Shia militia forces – these are the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) – opposed to IS.
By 2018, the US, Iraq, and Iran-supported Shia militias retook all of the IS territories in Iraq.
Throughout 2019, Israel has sporadically bombed the Iraqi Shia militias. The US was held as a necessary accomplice to bomb the Shia militias. There have also been occasional rocket attacks against Iraqi Army bases that house US soldiers. These bases are huge and the rockets often hit empty space. The US blamed Iran for using the Shia militias as a proxy force to carry out the attack. The US never provided evidence that the Shia militias carried out the attack or that the operation on the direct orders of Iran. Other sources speculate remnants of the Islamic State are targeting the Iraqi bases.
On December 27th, a US contractor was killed in one of the rocket attacks on an Iraqi base. In response, the US bombed several bases of a Shia militia group, Kataib Hezbollah. The US said the group was responsible for the attack. Overall, 25 people were killed by the US strikes.
On New Year’s Eve, in response to the airstrikes, protesters took to the street outside the US embassy in Iraq. Eventually, they broke into the compound through the visitor’s gate. They entered a lobby of the embassy before protests were dispersed. Protests resumed on New Year’s Day until the Shia PMF leadership called for them to end.
Lies From the Trump Admin
Qasem Soleimani is responsible for 100s of American deaths
This claim originates from the period in the Iraq War when the Bush Admin decided that it needed to fight against some Shia militias. Until this point in the war, the US had fought the Sunni insurgency alongside the Shia militias and the Shia Iraqi Army the US was building. While the Shia militias had some influence from Iran, the Shia militia targeted by the US, the Mehdi Army, had a weak relationship with Iran.
While the US was fighting the Shia in Iraq, about 500 Americans were killed. Many of the Americans were killed by EFP. While the Bush administration blamed the EFPs on Iran. It was later revealed the EFPs were all manufactured in Iraq. The Trump administration is now repeating the lies of Bush. This is likely to try to whip up support for his failing maximum pressure campaign and justify his decision to leave Obama’s Nuclear Deal.
Even if Iran – and Soleimani – did have some influence with the Shia militias fighting the US, it is ultimately Bush’s fault for sending American soldiers to Iraq in the first place. Even if Saddam did present a threat, Bush did not have to leave thousands of American soldiers in Iraq to attempt to rebuild the country. He could and should have withdrawn the soldiers long before the US started fighting on both sides of the civil war that was raging in Iraq.
Soleimani was killed in self-defense
MSNBC analyst Rukimini Calimachi said the evidence that Iran was planning an attack is very thin “According to them, the evidence suggesting there was to be an imminent attack on American targets is “razor-thin”.” Check out her Twitter thread for details.
Trump had no authority from Congress to carry out the strike
Soleimani was a general in the Iranian government. For Trump to have carried out a strike against Soleimani he would need some kind of authorization for that.
Generally, the US government will invoke the ‘2001 The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)’ if they are carrying out a targeted drone strike. However, the AUMF only approves the use of force against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Iran is the enemy of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
There is also the 2002 AUMF that Congress passed to allow Bush-43 to invade Iraq. The US withdrew forces from Iraq in 2011 and logically the AUMF should have expired. Obama did invoke this AUMF to redeploy US forces into Iraq in 2014 to fight IS. It makes little sense to invoke the 2002 AUMF here as Soleimani fought with the US against IS.
Trump may attempt to claim that Soleimani was a danger to US forces and he had the right to defend US forces. If this is the case, the War Powers Act will require him to submit reports to Congress on his choice to take out Soleimani. If those reports don’t show Soleimani was a present danger to US forces, Congress should seek.
2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)
Congress recently passed a 3,500 page, $738 billion bill to fund the Pentagon for FY 2020. The bill is a method Congress should use to exert its ‘power of the purse’ to exercise authority over the president’s foreign policy. Initially, House Democrats pass a bill that would have been very relevant to controlling Trump’s impulsive decisions to use lethal force. The bill would have required Congress to repeal, and possibly replace, the outdated and overused 2001 and 2002 AUMFs. The bill, almost foreseeing this very event, also explicitly stated Trump does not have the authority to attack Iran. During the conference committee, a bill was produced that reflected the Republican version of the NDAA passed by the Senate. It took out many of the constraints the Democrats wanted over Trump’s foreign policy.
Quick Background Timeline for US-Iranian/Iraqi Affairs
In 1953, the CIA worked to overthrow the elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, and replace him with the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi was a brutal dictator until his overthrow. Link to NPR Further explaining
In 1979, the Iranian people rose up in the Islamic Revolution and removed the Shah from power. Islamic leadership, Ayatollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of Iran. During the revolution, students took hostages at the US embassy. The hostages were eventually freed after a long standoff in 1980 that impacted the election and helped Reagan get elected. The US and Iran have had a hostile relationship.
During the 1980s, Iraq – under Saddam Hussein – launched the brutal Iran/Iraq War against Iran. 100,000s on each side would die in the war. Publicly the US-backed Iraq. We provided weapons and intelligence. Including intelligence that was used by Saddam to bomb Iranians with chemical weapons. The war ended near the end of the decade in mostly a draw.
In 1988, the US shot down an Iranian passenger airliner over the Gulf. 290 people were killed. President Bush 41 – “I will never apologize for America. I don’t care what the facts are.”
In 1991, the US invaded Iraq to remove Iraq from the oil fields in Kuwait. The US devastated the Iraqi military in the war.
Throughout the 90s the US enforced a strict sanctions campaign against Iraq in an effort to remove Saddam from power. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright acknowledged the sanctions caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children and the “price was worth it.” 60 Minutes Interview
The Bush 43 Administration lied about Saddam producing WMDs and having ties to al-Qaeda/9-11 to push the US to invade and overthrow Saddam in 2003.
After invading Iraq the US disbanded the Iraqi Army. A lot of the army join in with the Sunni insurgency opposition to the US. Parts of the insurgency became al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The US-allied with the Shia against the Sunni opposition. The brutal war killed maybe a million people and ethnically cleansed Baghdad of Sunni. About 4,000 American soldiers died fighting Sunni.
In 2006, Bush realized the Arab Shia majority in Iraq was supported and friendly with the Shia government of Iran, so he changed US policy and started fighting against Shia militias in Iraq. In particular, the US fought a war against the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. About 500 American soldiers died fighting them.
In 2011, the agreement the US had with the Iraqi government to stay in Iraq ended and Obama withdrew most US forces.
In 2014, the Islamic State had become a threat to the Iraqi government and Obama moved thousands of troops into Iran to combat the Islamic State. Iran – led by Soleimani – raised militias to fight against the Islamic State as well. The militias were key to defeating IS in Iraq and received support from US airstrikes.
By 2018, IS had lost all of its territory in Iraq and is only able to carry out sporadic bombings. The Shia militias were officially absorbed into the Iraqi militaries and were celebrated in the region for defeating IS.
In 2019, Israel bombed Iraqi Shia militias in Iraq. The US is accused of being a necessary accomplice, as the US military largely controls Iraqi airspace.
Several Iraqi bases that house US soldiers were hit with rocket strikes. Up until December 27th, no Americans were killed in these attacks. On the 27th a US contractor working in Iraq was killed.
Kyle Anzalone is the assistant editor at Antiwar.com, the news editor at the Libertarian Institute, host of the Foreign Policy Focus podcast.