2020 Baghdad International Airport airstrike

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2020 Baghdad International Airport airstrike
Part of the American-led intervention in Iraq and the Persian Gulf crisis
TypeDrone strike[1]
Location
33°15′29″N 44°15′22″E / 33.25806°N 44.25611°E / 33.25806; 44.25611Coordinates: 33°15′29″N 44°15′22″E / 33.25806°N 44.25611°E / 33.25806; 44.25611
TargetQasem Soleimani[2]
Date3 January 2020 (2020-01-03)
about 1:00 a.m.[3] (local time, UTC+3)
Executed byUnited States United States
OutcomeSee Aftermath
Casualties10 killed, including Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis
2020 Baghdad International Airport airstrike is located in Iraq
2020 Baghdad International Airport airstrike
Location in Iraq

On 3 January 2020, a United States drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport targeted and killed Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Soleimani was commander of the Quds Force, which has been deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and was considered the second most powerful person of Iran. Nine others were killed alongside Soleimani, including the deputy chairman of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and commander of Kata'ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was listed as a terrorist in the United Arab Emirates and in the U.S.

The strike occurred during the 2019–20 Persian Gulf crisis, which began after the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, reimposed sanctions, and accused Iranian elements of fomenting a campaign to harass U.S. forces in the region. On 27 December 2019, the K-1 Air Base in Iraq, which hosts Iraqi and U.S. personnel, was attacked, killing an American contractor. The U.S. responded by launching airstrikes across Iraq and Syria, killing 25 Iran-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah militiamen. Days later, Shia militiamen and their supporters retaliated by attacking the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone.

The U.S. gave shifting and contradictory rationales for killing Soleimani, first claiming it was to stop an "imminent attack", then later stating: "We don't know precisely when and we don't know precisely where."[4][5] Iran said it was an act of "state terrorism". Iraq said the attack undermined its national sovereignty, was a breach of its agreement with the U.S. and an act of aggression against its officials. On 5 January 2020, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution to expel all foreign troops from its territory. The legality of the attack was subsequently brought into question in respect to international law, as well as the domestic laws of the U.S. and its bilateral security agreements with Iraq.

Soleimani's killing sharply escalated tension between the U.S. and Iran and stoked fears of a military conflict. Iranian leaders vowed revenge, while U.S. officials said they would preemptively attack any Iran-backed paramilitary groups in Iraq that they perceived as a threat. On 5 January 2020, Iran took the fifth and last step of reducing commitments to the 2015 international nuclear deal. Many in the international community reacted with concern and issued statements or declarations urging restraint and diplomacy. Five days after the airstrike, Iran launched a series of missile attacks on U.S. forces based in Iraq, the first direct engagement between Iran and the U.S. since Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. There were no casualties from Iran's missile attacks on the U.S. forces in Iraq. Leaders from both countries seemed reluctant to further escalate the conflict.

Background[edit]

Assassination as a policy consideration[edit]

The modern Middle East has seen a number of occasions in which the assassination of high-level government and military figures was attempted, or at least considered. Such instances include attempts by the United States to target during air raids Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 1986 and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1991, 1998, and 2003, and in addition to successful missions to kill non-state terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[6] Over the past centuries there has largely been a norm against governments conducting assassinations of foreign leaders, but that norm has been weakening over time, especially since World War II.[7] The effectiveness of anti-terrorist "leadership targeting" has become a subject of scholarly debate, especially with regard to whether such killings are actually beneficial to a country's foreign policy goals.[8] Both the consideration against further eroding norms and the questions regarding effectiveness would be raised in the wake of the strike against Soleimani.[9] The costs and benefits of foreign policy assassinations are difficult to compute, and decisions to go ahead with such actions often reflect the vague, and not always realized, hope that any successor to the targeted person will be less capable against, or will embody policies more favorable toward, the country taking the action.[6]

U.S. and Iranian interference in Iraq since 2014[edit]

In 2014, the U.S. intervened in Iraq, as a part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), an American-led mission to degrade and fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror organization, and have been training and operating alongside Iraqi forces as a part of the anti-ISIL coalition. In 2017, ISIL was largely defeated back from Iraq during the three-year battle, with the help of primarily Iran-backed Shia militias—Popular Mobilization Forces, reporting to the Iraqi prime minister since 2016—and the U.S.-backed Iraqi Armed Forces.[10]

Political considerations[edit]

Concerning the provisional nuclear deal with Iran, some critics of the treaty condemned that Iran could make a nuclear bomb after expiry of the limited-term nuclear deal.[11] President Trump also criticized the 15-year nuclear deal with Iran by the previous U.S. administration's paying $1.7 billion cash to Tehran.[12][13][14] Tensions rose between Iran and the U.S. in 2018 after Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions against Iran,[15] which severely affected Iran's economy,[16] as a part of the U.S. administration's strategy of applying "maximum pressure" against Iran for the purpose of establishment of the new Iran–U.S. nuclear deal.[17][18][19]

The Quds Force which Soleimani led has been designated a terrorist organization by Canada,[20] Saudi Arabia, Bahrain,[21] and the U.S.[22][23] Soleimani himself was sanctioned by the United Nations[24] and sanctioned by the European Union[25][26][27] and was on U.S. terror watchlists.[28]

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was designated a terrorist by the U.S. in 2009.[29] The 25,000-strong militia he commanded,[30] Kata'ib Hezbollah, is considered a terrorist organization by Japan,[31] the United Arab Emirates,[32] and the U.S.[33]

Importance of the killing of Soleimani[edit]

General Qasem Soleimani was considered the second most powerful person in Iran, behind Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,[34] and in his later years enjoyed a near unassailable heroic status, especially with supporters of Tehran's hard-line politics.[35]

Ever since the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), in which Iran felt attacked not only by Saddam Hussein's Iraq but by the whole world siding with Saddam against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic republic in Tehran,[36] with notably the U.S. supplying weapons and intelligence to Iraq,[37] Soleimani had developed into the architect of all of Iran's foreign policies in the Middle East until Afghanistan[34][35][38][clarification needed] and a key figure in all of Iran's foreign and defence policies.[34] He provided crucial support to President Bashar al-Assad's regime during the Syrian Civil War.[39] He even wrote U.S. General David Petraeus, then Commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, a letter in early 2008 to tell him: "General Petraeus, you must know that I, Qasem Soleimani, am in charge of the Iranian policies concerning Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan".[35]

That made his killing by the U.S. on 3 January 2020 a significant aggravation[36] of the existing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, distrusted and disliked by U.S. leaders as recently testified by the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 and further policy of President Trump. Iran's leaders the days after the assasination of Soleimani vowed "shattering revenge"[34] "on places and at times where the U.S. don't expect it".[40]

Prior threats against Qasem Soleimani[edit]

Former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both considered and rejected targeting Qasem Soleimani, reasoning that it would escalate to a full-scale war. Retired CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos told The New York Times that Soleimani, unlike other adversaries killed by the U.S., felt comfortable operating in the open and was not hard to find. He often took photographs of himself and openly taunted U.S. forces.[41]

In September 2015, radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Donald Trump about Soleimani. After initially confusing him with a Kurdish leader, Trump argued that leaders like Soleimani would be dead under his administration.[42]

It was reported in 2015 that Israel was "on the verge" of assassinating Soleimani on Syrian soil; however, the U.S., during the Obama administration's negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, thwarted the operation by revealing it to the Iranian officials.[43]

On 25 August 2019, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said, "Israel is acting to strike the head of the Iranian snake and uproot its teeth ... Iran is the head of the snake and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, is the snake's teeth."[44] In October 2019, Hossein Taeb, chief of the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, told the press that his agency had arrested an unspecified number of people, allegedly foiling a plot by Israeli and Arab agencies to assassinate Soleimani. He said they had planned to "buy a property adjacent to the grave of Soleimani's father and rig it with explosives to kill the commander".[45] He added the way of the assassination would have appeared as part of an internal Iranian power struggle to "trigger a religious war inside Iran".[46] Yossi Cohen, chief of the Israeli foreign intelligence agency (Mossad), said in response, "Soleimani knows that his assassination is not impossible."[47]

On 2 January 2020, The New York Times author Steven Simon wrote in a comment: "What if the former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Qassim Suleimani, visits Baghdad for a meeting and you know the address? The temptations to use hypersonic missiles will be many."[48]

Prelude[edit]

Response to Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani's perceived destructive influence in Iraq and abroad have been a topic of debate amongst U.S. officials for many years. Back in 2006, as the U.S. War in Iraq began to see increasingly sophisticated and lethal roadside bombs,[49] such as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs)—thought to be exclusively due to Iranian influence—[50][51]the U.S. military was seeking ways to mitigate the damage. In August of 2007, as U.S. military officials attempted to learn more about the leadership of the Iran-backed proxy groups operating in Iraq, they received a message relayed through the Iraqi Minister of State for National Security, that Soleimani wanted them to know that he was "the sole decision-maker on Iranian activities in Iraq".[52]

According to a report by NBC News, Eric Edelman, a career foreign services officer with senior diplomatic posts at the time, U.S. commander Army Gen. George Casey considered designating Soleimani and Quds Force officers enemy combatants, thus making them subject to military action. However, the idea was ruled out over concerns of opening a "new front" in the war. Edelman stated, "There were a lot of us who thought he should be taken out. But at the end of the day, they decided not to do that," due to concern of starting simultaneous conflict with Iran.[53]

In October 2007, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush was the first to designate Soleimani a terrorist on the basis of his involvement with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force, and the increasing recognition of the role they played in the Iraq conflict.[54] According to an interview with a PolitiFact journalist, retired Army Col. Frank Sobchak, said that around the same time U.S. special forces had planned for his capture, but the mission was not approved by senior officials. He said, "Individuals that we talked to in senior positions of the U.S. government told us that with support for the war at an all time low in 2007, the Bush administration recognized the importance of Soleimani to the war, but was not willing to risk the political capital and repercussions that could occur from expanding the war to that level."[55]

These activities preceded escalating concern and terror designations of Soleimani by the Obama administration. The first such designation was made in May, 2011, in response to Soleimani's assistance to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate in the violent suppression of Syrian protestors.[56] The second, and more serious designation by the Obama administration came in October, 2011, after a plot was revealed in which four senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officers were planning to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador while in the United States, under the supervision of Soleimani.[57]

In early October 2019, according to two Iraqi militia commanders and two security sources who spoke with Reuters staff, Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani met in Baghdad to discuss a change in strategy with Iraqi Shiite militia allies.[58] The new focus of strategy was to be an increase in targeted rocket attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, with the intended effect of provoking an antagonistic U.S. military response that would divert political pressure from Iran. Leading up to the meeting, there had been increasing anti-Iran sentiment amongst the local Iraqi population, culminating in prolonged and vocal anti-Iran protests, even featuring such specific displays of anti-Iran sentiment as demonstrators banging their shoes on raised portraits of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.[59] Iran, concerned about losing hard won influence in Iraq, had resorted to increasingly violent means to counter this resentment.[60] These means, under direct guidance of Soleimani,[61] resulted in the deaths of at least 400 protestors, with an estimated 20,000 wounded, but without significant success.[62][63][64][65]The next step in the strategy chosen by Soleimani was to step up attacks on U.S. forces. Kataib Hezbollah was picked because, according to Soleimani it "would be difficult to detect by the Americans", as well as be able to utilize Iran-provided scout drones for more precision in target selection for the rocket attacks.[66]

On 27 December 2019, the K-1 Air Base in Kirkuk province, Iraq—one of many Iraqi military bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve coalition personnel—was attacked by more than 30 rockets, killing an Iraqi-American and Muslim U.S. defense contractor,[67] and injuring multiple U.S. and Iraqi service members.[68] The U.S. blamed the Iranian-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah militia for the attack.[69] Furthermore, a senior U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said there had been a campaign of 11 attacks on Iraqi bases hosting OIR personnel in the two months before the 27 December incident, many of which the U.S. also attributed to Kata'ib Hezbollah.[70][71] On 29 December 2019, retaliatory U.S. airstrikes targeted five Kata'ib Hezbollah weapon storage facilities and command and control locations in Iraq and Syria.[72][73] 25 militia members died[74] and 55 were wounded.[75]

On 31 December 2019, after a funeral was held for the Kata'ib Hezbollah militiamen, dozens of Iraqi Shia militiamen and their supporters marched into the Green Zone and surrounded the U.S. embassy compound.[76] Dozens of the demonstrators then smashed through a main door of the checkpoint, set fire to the reception area, raised Popular Mobilization Units militia flags, left anti-American posters, and sprayed anti-American graffiti.[77][78][79] U.S. president Donald Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the attack on the embassy and added that they would be held "fully responsible".[80] Iran's foreign ministry denied they were behind the protests.[81][82][83]

Pentagon evaluation[edit]

The Pentagon evaluated Soleimani was the leader of Tehran's attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, including the 2019 K-1 Air Base attack and killing of a U.S. civilian, and the shooting down of a U.S. aerial vehicle. Regarding the decision to kill Soleimani, the U.S. focused on both his past actions and a deterrent to his future action as the Pentagon announced that "he was actively developing plans to attack U.S. diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region."[84][85][86][87]

Trump briefing[edit]

According to an unnamed senior U.S. official, after the bombing of Kata'ib Hezbollah in late December 2019, a security briefing was convened at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate where he and his advisors, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Mark Milley discussed how to respond to Iran's alleged role in sponsoring anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq. Reportedly, the targeted killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, whom U.S. officials regarded as a facilitator of attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq, was listed as the "most extreme option"[88] of many options on a briefing slide,[89] and was included to make the other options appear more palatable,[90] reflecting a practice among Pentagon officials whereby a very extreme option is presented to presidents so as to make other options appear more palatable.[88] Trump chose the option to kill Soleimani. The president's order prompted the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies that have tracked Soleimani's whereabouts for years to locate him on a flight from Damascus to Baghdad, reportedly to hold meetings with Iraqi militiamen. The air strike would have been called off if Soleimani had been on his way to meet with Iraqi government officials aligned with the U.S.[2]

Trump did not advise the top congressional leaders of the Gang of Eight in advance of the strike. Senator Lindsey Graham indicated Trump had discussed the matter with him in advance of the strike, as he was visiting the president at his Mar-a-Lago estate.[91][92]

Trump's motivation for the strike[edit]

According to The Washington Post on 4 January 2020, Trump wanted to kill Soleimani[a] to avoid the appearance of weakness amid the ongoing Persian Gulf crisis, since his decision to call off an airstrike against Iran in summer 2019 after the downing of a U.S. drone had led to what he perceived as negative media coverage. Lawmakers and aides who had spoken to him told the Post that the president also had the 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya on his mind.[90] U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo[b] had discussed killing Soleimani with Trump months before the strike, but did not garner support from the president or the defense team then in place.[96] According to The Wall Street Journal on 10 January 2020, Trump reportedly told associates after the strike that he was motivated to strike Soleimani for domestic political gain, particularly to sway Republican Senators to support him in his upcoming Senate impeachment trial.[97]

According to The New York Times, Trump initially rejected the option to target Soleimani on 28 December 2019, but made the decision after being angered by television news reports of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad under attack by Iranian-backed protesters on 31 December.[88] By late 2 January, Trump had finalized his decision of the most extreme option his advisors had provided him, which reportedly "stunned" top Pentagon officials. The Times report cited unnamed U.S. officials as saying the intelligence regarding Soleimani's alleged plot against the U.S. was "thin" and that the Ayatollah had not approved any operation for Soleimani to carry out. However, General Milley said the intelligence was "clear and unambiguous" with a time frame of "days, weeks".[98] U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were reportedly the most hawkish voices arguing to retaliate against Iran.[2] Vice President Pence later wrote that Soleimani was plotting "imminent" attacks on U.S. persons.[99] U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien insisted that Soleimani "was plotting to kill, to attack American facilities, and diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were located at those facilities".[100]

On the day of the strike, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo asserted the attack was ordered by Trump to disrupt an "imminent attack" by Soleimani operatives, although subsequent reports on that rationale were mixed.[101][102][2][103] On 9 January Trump said, without presenting evidence, "We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy. We also did it for other reasons that were very obvious. Somebody died, one of our military people died. People were badly wounded just a week before."[104] On 10 January, President Trump claimed on The Ingraham Angle on the Fox News Channel that Soleimani had been planning attacks on four U.S. Embassies in the Middle East.[105] Afterwards several members of Congress, including Mike Lee and Chris Murphy, claimed that the Trump administration had not informed them of this in the intelligence briefing on the strike.[106] Three days after Trump's remarks, Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted that, although "there was evidence" of a plot against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the president "didn't cite intelligence" about the other three embassies he mentioned, and that the president instead shared his belief that there "probably could have been" a plot against those embassies.[107][108][109]

On 18 January, CNN reported that President Trump claimed that Soleimani was "saying bad things about our country", then he asked "How much of this shit do we have to listen to? ... How much are we going to listen to?"[110]

Soleimani's trip to Iraq[edit]

Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Prime Minister of Iraq, said he was scheduled to meet Soleimani on the day the attack happened, with the purpose of Soleimani's trip being that Soleimani was delivering Iran's response to a previous message from Saudi Arabia which Iraq had relayed.[111] According to Abdul-Mahdi, Trump had called him to request that Abdul-Mahdi mediate the conflict between the U.S. and Iran before the drone strike.[112][113]

Attack[edit]

An MQ-9 Reaper drone in flight

On 3 January 2020, at 12:32 a.m. local time, General Soleimani's Airbus A320 Cham Wings plane arrived at Baghdad International Airport from Damascus International Airport after being delayed for two hours for unknown reasons.[114][115][c] An MQ-9 Reaper drone of the U.S. Air Force[116][d] and other military aircraft loitered above the area[e] as Soleimani and other pro-Iranian paramilitary figures, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a U.S.-designated terrorist,[33] entered two vehicles and departed the airport towards downtown Baghdad. At 12:47 a.m., the Reaper drone launched several missiles,[119][f] striking the convoy on Baghdad Airport Road, engulfing the two cars in flames and killing 10 people.[122][123][124][125][126]

As news of the event broke, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a statement which said that the strike was carried out "at the direction of the president" and was meant to deter future attacks. Trump asserted that Soleimani had been planning further attacks on American diplomats and military personnel and had approved the attack on the American embassy in Baghdad.[127][128][129]

According to Saudi-based Arab News, the drone that struck Soleimani's convoy had been launched from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.[130] A statement by the Air Force of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) stated that Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait participated, among other bases in the region, in the operation that was executed near Baghdad airport recently. Kuwait summoned the Iranian ambassador to Kuwait over the statement and expressed Kuwait's resentment and categorical denial at such statement.[131]

Casualties[edit]

General Qasem Soleimani (left) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were among those killed.

Soleimani's body was identified using a ring that he wore.[132][g] As DNA results were still pending regarding the identification of those killed, a senior Pentagon official said there was "high probability" that Soleimani would be identified.[134][135] Ahmed Al Asadi, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), confirmed the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis.[125] According to Ayatollah Ali Sistani's office, the casualties included "several commanders who defeated Islamic State terrorists".[136]

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said a total of ten people were killed. Along with Soleimani, four other IRGC officers were also killed: Brigadier General Hossein Pourjafari, Colonel Shahroud Mozafarinia, Major Hadi Taremi and Captain Vahid Zamanian.[137] The remaining five casualties were Iraqi members of the PMF: deputy chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, chief of protocol and public relations Muhammed Reza al-Jaberi,[138] Mohammad al-Shibani, Hassan Abdul Hadi and Heydar Ali.[139]

The New York Times contrasted the attack to Operation Vengeance in World War II, when American pilots shot down the plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, which the paper said was "the last time the United States killed a major military leader in a foreign country".[2]

Aftermath[edit]

Demonstrations in Iran over the death of Soleimani, 3 January 2020. Video by Tasnim News.

Soleimani and al-Muhandis' deaths raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran. According to France 24, the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani "has caused alarm around the world, amid fears that Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region could spiral into a far larger conflict".[140]

A spokesman for the Iranian government said the country's top security body would hold an extraordinary meeting shortly to discuss the "criminal act of attack".[141] Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that "retaliation is waiting".[142] Trump warned Tehran that any retaliation would result in the U.S. targeting 52 Iranian significant sites, including cultural sites.[143] The 52 sites were reported to represent the 52 American hostages held during the Iran hostage crisis.[144][145] Hossein Dehghan, the main military adviser of Iran, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif asserted that attacks on Iranian cultural sites would be grave breaches of international law. U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo avoided a direct answer when asked about cultural targets, saying that Washington will do the things that are right and the things that are consistent with U.S. law.[146] U.S. secretary of defense Mark Esper later asserted that cultural sites would not be targeted because "That's the laws of armed conflict."[147]

On 5 January 2020, the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran chanted "America, the greatest Satan", during its session.[148] That day, Iran announced that it would suspend all its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal[149] except that it would continue to cooperate with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The statement added, "If the sanctions are lifted ... the Islamic Republic is ready to return to its obligations."[150][151]

U.S. paratroopers assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division deploy to the Middle East following the Baghdad airstrike, 4 January 2020

Shortly after the attack, several planes with U.S. service members took off from bases in the eastern United States.[152] The following day, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the deployment of 3,500 members of the 82nd Airborne Division to the region, one of the largest rapid deployments in decades.[153] Defense officials said the deployment was not directly related to the airstrike which killed Soleimani, but was instead a "precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities".[154] On 4 January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said there was "no specific, credible" threat to the U.S. mainland but warned about Iranian capabilities.[155] U.S. spy agencies reportedly detected that Iran's ballistic missile regiments were at a heightened readiness but it was unclear if they were defensive, cautionary measures or an indication of a future attack on U.S. forces.[156]

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately "via airline while possible, and failing that, to other countries via land".[157] The next day, Britain warned its nationals to avoid all travel to Iraq outside the Kurdistan region, and to avoid all but essential travel to Iran.[158] Australia issued a similar warning advising its nationals to "leave Iraq as soon as possible".[159] On 5 January, the UK announced that the Royal Navy will accompany UK-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz.[160]

Global oil prices rose moderately in reaction to Soleimani's death to heights not seen for a whole three months,[161] before falling back.[162][163] Following Iran's zero-casualty missile attack, prices were lower than before the airstrike that killed al-Muhandis.[164] On 6 January, Chevron evacuated all its American oil workers from Iraqi Kurdistan as a "precautionary measure".[165]

Other assassination attempts[edit]

On the same day of the Baghdad airport attack, an IRGC financier, Abdul Reza Shahlai,[h] was unsuccessfully targeted by U.S. drones in Yemen,[167] which killed Mohammad Mirza, a Quds Force operative, instead.[168] Shahlai was also responsible for murdering five American soldiers in Karbala, Iraq on 20 January 2007.[169]

Alleged Taji road airstrike[edit]

The day after the Baghdad airport attack, Iraqi state news reported that there had been another airstrike against a convoy of medical units of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces near Camp Taji in Taji, north of Baghdad. An Iraqi Army source told Reuters the attack killed six people and critically wounded three.[170] The PMF later said there was no senior commander in the convoy, and the Imam Ali Brigades denied reports of the death of its leader.[171] The PMF also denied that any medical convoy was targeted at Taji.[172] There was no information about who conducted the attack. Spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve Colonel Myles B. Caggins III said the coalition did not do it, while Iraq's Joint Operations Command denied reports of any such attack, saying it was simply a false rumor that spread quickly due to the prior airport strike.[173]

Funerals[edit]

Aerial footage of Soleimani's funeral procession in Tehran. Video from FARS News Agency.

On 4 January, the funeral procession for Soleimani, al-Muhandis, and the Iraqi and Iranian militants was held in Baghdad and attended by thousands of mourners who chanted "death to America, death to Israel". Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was also present.[174] The cortege began around Al-Kadhimiya Mosque, a Shiite holy site in Baghdad, before heading to the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound where a state funeral was held. From Baghdad, the procession moved to the Shia holy city of Karbala and on to Najaf, where al-Muhandis and the other Iraqis were buried, while the coffins of Soleimani and the Iranian nationals were sent to Iran.[175][176] Following the mourning procession in Baghdad,[177] unknown people fired short-range rockets towards the U.S. embassy and at the U.S. Balad Air Base.[178] The U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, said no Americans were harmed by the sporadic rocket attacks on 4 January.[2]

The remains of Soleimani and the Iranian figures killed in the strike arrived in Iran on 5 January, where they became part of mourning processions in several cities, first in Ahvaz[179] and later in Mashhad, where one million people attended the mourning. It was initially reported that Iran canceled the mourning procession planned in Tehran because the city would not be able to handle the number of attendees expected after the turnout in Mashhad;[180][181] however, the Tehran service was held, at which Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly wept while leading prayers for the funeral. Iranian state media said the crowd of mourners numbered in the "millions", reportedly the biggest since the 1989 funeral of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.[182][183] Iranian authorities plan to take Soleimani's body to Qom on 6 January for public mourning processions,[184] then onto his hometown of Kerman for final burial on 7 January.[185][186] Before the national procession was completed, multiple infrastructure works, such as the international airport at Ahvaz and an expressway in Tehran, had already been renamed after him.[187][188] The funeral was boycotted by critics of the current government by using the hashtag #IraniansDetestSoleimani for the IRGC's war crimes.[189][190]

On 7 January 2020, at least 56 people were killed and 213 injured in a stampede during Soleimani's burial at Kerman. As a result the burial was postponed to a later time.[191][192]

Status of U.S. troops in Iraq[edit]

Al-Manar reported that "in an extraordinary session on Sunday, 170 Iraqi lawmakers signed a draft law requiring the government to request the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Only 150 votes are needed that the draft resolution be approved."[193] There are 329 lawmakers in total. Rudaw Media Network (Kurdish) described the 170 Iraqi lawmakers that signed the law as Shiite[194] and that "Iraqi parliament's resolution to expel foreign troops has no legal consequences."[195] Al Jazeera reported the resolution read "The government commits to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting Islamic State due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory" and "The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason."[196] The resolution was approved in the Iraqi parliament.[197] In response to the vote, Trump threatened Iraq with sanctions that would "make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame" and demanded reimbursement for American investments on military facilities in Iraq.[198]

On 6 January 2020, the Pentagon released a letter from Marine Brigadier General William Seely to Abdul Amir, the Iraqi deputy director of Combined Joint Operations Baghdad, informing him that "as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF–OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement."[199] Shortly afterward, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, "That letter is a draft. It was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released ... [it was] poorly worded, implies withdrawal, that is not what's happening."[200]

A couple of days later, United States Department of State warned Iraq to lose access to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York accounts,[i] in a phone call if U.S. troops were asked to leave, according to Iraqi officials.[202][j]

On 24 January, several hundred thousand Iraqis protested against U.S. military presence in Iraq and called for them to leave the country after Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for a "Million Man March." Iraqi President Barham Salih tweeted, "Iraqis insist on a state with complete sovereignty that will not be breached."[206]

Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi—U.S. bases[edit]

On 8 January 2020, Iranian forces launched ballistic missiles at the Al Asad Airbase and an airbase near Erbil, both in Iraq, where American personnel were located.[207][208] The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps declared that the strikes were part of their retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.[209] No Iraqi or American casualties were reported.[210]

According to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), the country's state-run news outlet, Iran fired "tens of ground-to-ground missiles" at the base and claimed responsibility for the attacks.[211] The attacks unfolded in two waves, each about an hour apart.[212] The Pentagon said these bases were on high alert after signs of the Iranian government were planning attacks on U.S. forces.[213] Although the Pentagon disputes the number launched, it has confirmed that both the Ayn al-Asad and the Erbil airbases were hit by Iranian missiles.[214][215] A military spokesman for U.S. Central Command said a total of 15 missiles were fired. Ten hit the Ayn al-Asad airbase, one hit the Erbil base, and four missiles failed.[212] Other sources confimed that two ballistic missiles targeted Erbil: one hit Erbil International Airport and did not explode, the other landed about 20 miles (32 km) west of Erbil.[216] On 8 January Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said the Kingdom would stand with Iraq and do everything in its power to spare it from the "danger of war and conflict between external parties".[217]

Relaunch of Iraq street protests[edit]

The sustained massive street protests in Iraq that led to Abdul-Mahdi's resignation as prime minister (and temporary caretaker role) restarted in the days after the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, with a shift in the focus of protests from mostly anti-Iran to criticism of both the U.S. and Iran.[218][219][220] The "Made in Iraq" street and online protests strengthened in Baghdad following the assassination.[221] Major protests took place on 5 January 2020 in many cities,[218][219] "Made in Iraq" protests on 7 January,[221] and two thousand protested in Basra and Nassiriyah on 10 January, with one of the slogans being "Neither America nor Iran, our revolution is a young revolution."[220]

Iranian protests[edit]

On 11 January 2020, after Iranian authorities acknowledged that Iranian military forces had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, thousands of people protested in Iran,[222] continuing the Iranian protests ongoing since December 2017.[223][224][225][226] The protestors called for the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to resign, chanted "Death to the liars" and called "for the IRGC to leave the country".[227]

Legality[edit]

The airstrike's legal justification became a subject of debate.[228][229][230][231]

Alleged violation of international law[edit]

The Charter of the United Nations generally prohibits the use of force against other states, if a country does not consent to it on its territory.[232] The Government of Iraq did not grant permission to the U.S. to target a military commander from another country on its soil.[231][232] Some legal experts believe a lack of consent from Iraq makes it difficult for the U.S. to justify the attack.[232]

Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, maintained that the airstrike "most likely violate[d] international law incl[uding] human rights law", adding that killing of other individuals alongside Soleimani was "absolutely unlawful".[228][233]

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said "the intelligence information I have seen, under the right to defend yourself against an imminent threat, that would have been met."[234] A spokesman for Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said, "States have a right to take action such as this in self-defence."[235] Johnson later said "... the strict issue of legality is not for the UK to determine since it was not our operation", in response to Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn who called it an "illegal act" and asked for the government to condemn it.[236]

Mary Ellen O'Connell argued that the "premeditated killing" of Soleimani was against the Hague (1907) and Geneva (1949) conventions, and thus unlawful.[237] Robert M. Chesney maintained that the attack could be justifiable if it was "self-defense"; Oona A. Hathaway said the available facts did not support that.[232]

NBC News correspondents reported that according to five current and former Trump administration officials, Trump had authorized the killing Soleimani back in June, 2019, on the condition that "Iran's aggression resulted in the death of an American." According to the correspondents, given the overall timeline of events, this report may call into question for some the Trump administration's citied reason of "imminent threats" as a cause of the killing.[238]

Iran said it will pursue a war-crimes case against US president Donald Trump at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.[239]

In terms of agreement with Iraq[edit]

PMF is legally incorporated into the Iraqi security forces by a series of laws enacted by the parliament and Prime Ministerial orders, therefore, technically, the U.S. killed a senior Iraqi official (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis) and other military personnel of Iraq.[240][241]

A mutual agreement signed in 2008 prohibits the U.S. from launching attacks on other countries from Iraqi territory.[232] Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said the attack was a "breach of the conditions for the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq".[242] He also said "The assassination of an Iraqi military commander who holds an official position is considered aggression on Iraq ... and the liquidation of leading Iraqi figures or those from a brotherly country on Iraqi soil is a massive breach of sovereignty."[229] He and Speaker of the Council of Representatives Mohamed al-Halbousi released separate written statements, both calling the attack a breach of Iraq's sovereignty.[243][244] According to the office of the Iraqi caretaker prime minister, the U.S. secretary of state has subsequently been requested to send a delegation to Iraq tasked with formulating the mechanism for the withdrawal of U.S troops from Iraq.[245]

Domestic laws of the United States[edit]

The fact that the airstrike was orchestrated without the permission of Congress raised a number of legal questions.[231] The case was compared by AP reporter John Daniszewski to the drone killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki during the Obama administration.[246][247][248][249] Some analysts maintained that Trump had the authority to order the strike under Article Two of the United States Constitution, while the ambiguity of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) law may help Trump justify it.[228]

Executive Order 11905, signed in 1976, to prevent assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, states that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." The definition of assassination under the law—or whether it could be applied to this case—is not clear.[73]

Congressional resolution to limit Trump's war powers[edit]

Some members of Congress, which generally was not consulted or briefed before the Soleimani strike, sought to restrict the president's ability to conduct future military operations against Iran without congressional consent. On 6 January 2020, House Speaker Pelosi announced plans to hold a vote within the week on limiting President Trump's war powers concerning Iran.[250] On 8 January 2020, Pelosi announced that a vote will be held by the entire House on 9 January to limit President Trump's war powers concerning any future escalation of conflict with Iran.[251][252][253] The House Rules Committee cleared the way for a full House vote by approving parameters which set up a two-hour debate on 9 January.[254] The House vote is considered significant, as the U.S. Constitution provides that while the president may use the military to defend the country, any declaration of war must be approved by Congress (note that Congress has never declared war on anyone since World War II).[255] Trump criticized the effort, arguing that congressional approval should not be needed to militarily engage Iran "because you have to be able to make split-second decisions sometimes".[256]

On 9 January 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives considered the measure and eventually voted 224–194 to approve it. White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley criticized the resolution's passage, calling it "just another political move" and an attempt to "hinder the President's authority to protect America and our interests in the region ..." It was unclear if the resolution was binding or non-binding and whether the Senate would ultimately approve it; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called it a "meaningless vote" while Democrats insisted it sent a strong message that Trump must work with Congress on national security.[257][258][256]

Reactions[edit]

Sayyid Ali Khamenei consoles one of General Soleimani's sons

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed to take "harsh revenge" against the U.S.,[259][260][261] and declared three days of mourning.[262] President Hassan Rouhani also said Iran "will take revenge".[263] Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the attack "an extremely dangerous and foolish escalation".[264] Iran sent a letter to the United Nations, calling it "[s]tate terrorism" and said it violated principles of international law.[265] On 7 January, Iran's parliament approved a €200 million increase in the Quds Force's budget, to be used in two months.[266] Reuters reported that some Iranians including Soleimani supporters fear that a war could break out at a time of economic hardship and widespread corruption. Some older Iranians recalled memories of the Iran–Iraq War.[267]

In Iraq, outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the attack, calling it an assassination and stating that the strike was an act of aggression and a breach of Iraqi sovereignty which would lead to war in Iraq. He said the strike violated the agreement on the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and that safeguards for Iraq's security and sovereignty should be met with legislation.[268] The speaker of Iraq's parliament Mohammed al Halbousi vowed to "put an end to U.S. presence" in Iraq.[269] The Iraqi parliament voted to ask U.S. to withdraw their forces from Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement and the Saraya al-Salam militia, ordered his followers to "prepare to defend Iraq".[270]

U.S. president Donald Trump delivers prepared remarks on the airstrikes, Mar-a-Lago, 3 January 2020

Shortly before the U.S. Department of Defense announced the strike, President Trump posted a U.S. flag on Twitter.[271][272]The next morning held a public statement saying he had authorized the strike because Soleimani was plotting "imminent and sinister attacks" on Americans. He added, "We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war."[273] He also said he did not seek a regime change in Iran.[274] On 4 January, Trump tweeted that 52 Iranian targets (representing the 52 American hostages in the 1979–81 Iran hostage crisis) had been selected if Iran "strikes any Americans, or American assets".[275][276] Iranian President Rouhani responded to Trump's warning: "Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290", referring to the 1988 shooting down of an Iran Air Flight 655, by a U.S. warship in which 290 were killed.[277] Among those targets was Iranian "cultural sites",[278] and Trump subsequently insisted he would not hesitate to destroy such targets even after some said it could be considered a war crime.[279]

American politicians reacted along party lines. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell celebrated the attack, referring to Soleimani as "Iran's master terrorist".[280] House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to the attacks as "provocative and disproportionate", and introduced a "war powers resolution" requiring Trump's administration to end hostilities with Iran not approved by Congress within 30 days.[281] Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted "To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more."[282][39] On the other hand, Senator Richard Blumenthal stated, "The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades."[39] The Democratic candidates for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, political challengers to Trump, largely condemned the airstrike.[283] One candidate described the killing as a wag the dog incident,[284] parallel to the bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan by president Bill Clinton during his impeachment process.[285]

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put the police department on high alert, including the potential of bag checks at subway stations and vehicle checks at tunnels and bridges.[286]

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remarks

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern over the escalation and called for leaders to "exercise maximum restraint".[287] NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, following a meeting on 6 January, "all members of the Atlantic alliance stood behind the United States in the Middle East" and that "Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations."[288]

On 6 January, Russia and China were blamed by the U.S. because of "blocking a resolution condemning the attack on Washington's Baghdad embassy".[289][290] According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, "Russia has offered Iraq their S-400 air defense system to protect their airspace".[291][292] For only the second time since the start of the country's civil war nearly nine years ago, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, arrived in Syria to meet with its president, Bashar al-Assad, on 7 January.[293] In another meeting, in Baghdad, on 6 January, Zhang Tao, the Chinese Ambassador, said to Iraq's caretaker Prime Minister al-Mahdi that "China is keen to increase security and military cooperation in Iraq."[294]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ U.S. President Donald Trump claimed that Soleimani was responsible of planting thousands of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, by saying: "He was the king of the roadside bombs, great percentages of people don't have legs right now and arms because of this son of a bitch [Qassem Soleimani]".[93] Moreover, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson mentioned that Soleimani supplied "improvised explosive devices to terrorists, which I'm afraid killed and maimed British troops".[94]
  2. ^ According to BBC, U.S. Congressman Mike Pompeo applied in 2016 for an Iranian travel visa at the Embassy of Pakistan, Washington, D.C., to monitor the situation there, but his efforts were in vain.[95]
  3. ^ Soleimani used to avoid using his private plane because of increasing concerns regarding his own security, according to an Iraqi security source familiar with his security precautions.[114]
  4. ^ The drone, which was reported to have been launched from Qatar (Al Udeid Air Base), was controlled remotely by operators at the Creech Air Force Base.[117]
  5. ^ Investigators in Iraq and Syria have concentrated on how collaborators inside the Damascus and Baghdad airports aided the U.S. military to track and pinpoint Soleimani's position.[114] In addition, NBC News reported that Israel helped in confirming the details provided by the informants.[118]
  6. ^ The MQ-9 Reaper drone was probably equipped with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.[120][121]
  7. ^ U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were about 0.5 miles (800 m) behind Soleimani's convoy when it was targeted. However, SOF were on the scene within few minutes and performed a bomb damage assessment, where they dragged Soleimani's body out, and took pictures of it along with his belongings, including his damaged cellphone which made further investigations impossible.[133]
  8. ^ The United States Department of State's Rewards for Justice Program offers up to 15 million USD in rewards for financial background information about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its branches, including information related to Abdul Reza Shahlai.[166]
  9. ^ In 2015, the U.S. Federal Reserve and Treasury Department halted Iraq's access to its funds at the New York Fed accounts for several weeks, fearing that they would be eventually taken by Iranian banks as well as ISIS.[201] However, Iraq's oil revenues deposited at the Fed were valued at $3 billion every month at the end of 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal.[202] Meanwhile, Iraqi officials declared that around $35 billion of the country's oil revenues are held at the U.S. Federal Reserve, which are equal to 90% of the national budget.[203]
  10. ^ In the meantime, U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned that Iraq should pay back for the facilities built there, if the U.S. military leaves, as their money held in the U.S., otherwise the troops would stay in Iraq.[204] Moreover, the Trump administration drafted sanctions against Iraq whether they expel U.S. troops.[205]

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