Qasem Soleimani, a polarizing Iranian figure, was assassinated at 1 a.m. local time leaving the airport in Baghdad, Iraq. Respected by some as the architect of the Iranian expansion, Soleimani was the foremost supporter of Iran's role in foreign wars in the region. He was, however, responsible for engaging in brutal acts of oppression and sectarian violence.
A key player in the region, Soleimani can be tied to the deaths of over a thousand Iranian protesters and played a hand in the violent anti-protest crackdown that resulted in the deaths of over five hundred Iraqis in October of 2019. His over two decade career as commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's (IRGC) Quds Force has left a trail of the dead. The Quds Force also supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against both ISIL and Kurdish forces, as well as the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Houthis in Yemen as well as other militias in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. To be clear, Qasem Soleimani was a dangerous man responsible for acts terror against Sunni civilians across the Middle-east.
Map shows locations of IRGC supported militias in the region.
The January 2 assassination followed an rocket attack on the U.S. Kirkuk Air Base in northern Iraq resulting in the death of a defense contractor working for the United States on Friday, December 27. Two days later an American retaliatory airstrike on Iranian-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah militia bases in Syria and near Qa'im, Iraq killed 24. On Tuesday, December 31st protesters, primarily from Iranian-backed militias, attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy, succeeding in burning the reception building and several guard posts along the outer wall of the embassy. A second demonstration of smaller proportions was held at the embassy the following day.
Both the Iranian and Trump administration's perception of immunity has been proven wrong. Iranian-backed militias had begun to face backlash from the Iraqi people, as anti-Iranian sentiments had been growing following increasing attacks by Kata'ib Hezbollah in the country in the past seven months, as well as Soleimani's part in suppression of Iraqi protests in response to militia activity. The Trump Administration failed to properly handle the situation when the December 29th airstrikes were conducted without authorization by the Iraqi government, violating Iraqi sovereignty. The airstrike that killed Soleimani was carried out using an MQ-9 Reaper Drone and was not sanctioned by the Iraqi government. The Iranian general was reportedly returning from Lebanon when the strike took place.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a live statement on CNN News this morning following the strike that it was a preemptive strike aimed to eliminate Soleimani in an attempt to disrupt an "imminent attack" on a U.S. asset in the region. Secretary Pompeo deflected questions about the alleged plot, including the type of target, whether it was a single or multiple targets, and whether the attack was expected to be conducted in the coming days. When asked if he agreed with a French official that the world was less safe following the strike, the Secretary state that, "Yeah well the French are just wrong about that. The world is a much safer place today". Later that day, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) informed reporters at Fox News that he had been briefed by the President while golfing together in Palm Beach, FL on Tuesday. It is unclear if the President had ordered the strike at that time. Graham also said the he believed oil refineries in Iran should be a target to crush the Iranians economically. Adding to the irregularity of the situation was Lindsey Graham's briefing of the decision days before the strike. Lindsey Graham is the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and not a member of the Gang of Eight, the top Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate who the president is required to brief on matters of security by Title 50 U.S. Code § 3091(a)(1) while Democratic lawmakers in the Gang of Eight have asserted that they had not been briefed, Republican congressional intelligence leaders have not made any statements on the matter.
Where do we go from here?
While Soleimani was indisputably a bad actor responsible for the deaths of thousands and further sectarian division, the violation of Iraqi sovereignty throws future stability in the region into question. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed rataliation on the United States and announced three days of national mourning, meanwhile Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has stated that the strike was "a dangerous escalation that will light the fuse of a destructive war in Iraq, the region, and the world.". It is unclear if the imminent threat the State Department has alleged to will still culminate in an attack on U.S. assets.
The State Department has issued an memo to the Embassy in Baghdad warning all U.S. Citizens in Iraq to evacuate for their safety. It is not out of the realm of plausibility that American citizens travelling and living abroad may become the targets of retaliation. U.S. Intelligence agencies will certainly have to monitor the situation closely. While the Trump administration highlights Soleimani's far reach, going so far as to state his part in a plot on U.S. soil as part of it's justification for the strike, this reality poses questions as to the reach of potential retaliatory attacks. The strike puts the region in uncharted waters with the potential to drag the United States into yet another conflict in what has now been an almost twenty year long war.