World Holds Its Breath After An American Strike In Iraq Kills Top Iranian Commander (Updated)

A U.S. military strike on a pair of SUVs near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq has killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the division of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for militant and terrorist activities outside of the country. It is difficult to imagine that the Iranian regime won’t feel compelled to take some form of action against any and all powers it holds responsible, possibly beyond the United States, to include its regional allies and partners, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. This, in turn, could easily prompt responses from those actors, creating a dangerous spiral of escalation, at least in the near future.

“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” a statement from the Pentagon said. “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

This statement also blames Soleimani and the Iranian government directly for directing the rocket barrage on the K-1 base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Dec. 27, 2019, which killed a U.S. contractor and wounded a number of American troops. Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, which the United States has also designated as a terrorist group, carried out that strike.

The full Pentagon statement., DOD

That incident had already led to a series of escalating events, starting with U.S. airstrikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah this past weekend. Just days ago, Kata’ib Hezbollah and its supporters launched an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in retaliation, prompting the United States to begin deploying thousands of additional troops to the region. The Pentagon statement said that Soleimani directed the Embassy attack, which caused no casualties and minor damage, as well. 

“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the Pentagon statement continues in regards to the strike near Baghdad’s airport. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”

President Donald Trump had previously Tweeted out a picture of an American flag and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, wrote his own post all but stating that the U.S. government had carried out the operation in response to repeated threats from Iran and its proxies in Iraq. 

There remain conflicting reports about whether a helicopter or a drone actually carried out the strikes. U.S. forces in Iraq have also reportedly sought to confirm Soleimani’s death directly, something that is an important part of the post-strike process for any targeted killing.

The strikes reportedly killed a number of other notable individuals in addition to Soleimani, including Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, Kata’ib Hezbollah leader and the Deputy Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee, the Iraqi government entity that oversees the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The bulk of the PMF consists of Iranian-backed militias, which received support from the Quds Force. The PMF’s top spokesperson and head of its protocol office, Mohammed Ridha, was also killed. There are unconfirmed reports that a senior member of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah also died. Iraqi authorities have denied reports that U.S. forces had arrested other important Iraqi militants who had taken part in the Embassy attack.

There also remains some confusion over whether or not there were additional rocket attacks targeting Baghdad Airport and other nearby locations, which you can read about more in The War Zone‘s initial reporting on tonight’s events.

“Let me speak directly to Iran and to our partners and allies. To Iran and its proxy militias: we will not accept continued attacks against our personnel and forces in the region,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had told reporters earlier in the day. “Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing. We urge the Iranian regime to end their malign activities.”

There are already reports emerging that Iran will seek to retaliate for Soleimani’s death and it’s hard to see how they could not. The Quds Force commander was an extremely well-connected and influential member of the Iranian regime. He also regularly engaged actively with Iranian-backed terrorists and militants across the Middle East, who are also likely to now take action.

It remains to be seen what form that response will take. Though Iran and its proxies cannot win a conventional conflict against the United States, they had already demonstrated a number of potential asymmetric options last year, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops’ shooting down a U.S. Navy drone over the Gulf of Oman in June 2019. The United States has also blamed Iran directly for carrying out unprecedented suicide drone and cruise missile attacks on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia three months later, as well as a string of attacks on commercial oil tankers during the year. 

Iran could use its considerable arsenal of ballistic missiles to threaten various countries in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which host U.S. forces, as well. Though the U.S. intelligence community has not assessed that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, there are long-standing reports that it may have stockpiles of chemical weapons, which it could load onto these weapons.

Iran also routinely threatens to blockade the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which it could do using a combination of ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, midget submarines, suicide drones, mines, swarming boat attacks, and more. This body of water links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and that serves as a transshipment point for 20 percent of the world’s oil and an equally significant portion of global natural gas. The price of a barrel of crude oil rose by over a dollar following the strike in Baghdad.

Simply seizing commercial ships and taking their crews hostage could be another option. Iran’s proxies could also launch terrorist attacks or a wave of kidnappings across the Middle East and potentially beyond. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq reportedly briefly abducted two French journalists following the attack on the U.S. embassy earlier this week, possibly believing they were Americans. Non-kinetic alternatives, such as cyberattacks, could be another part of the equation.

If Iran were to pursue any of those options, it would almost certainly beget at least similar responses, though the United States has now shown a willingness to take increasingly disproportionate steps in its ostensible goal of deterring Iran. Major escalatory actions from either side also increasingly run the risk of drawing in other regional or even global actors who have a stake in the situation, such as Russia or China, in some way. There is also the danger that third parties could find themselves caught in the crossfire from future tit-for-tat military or terrorist attacks.

With regards simply to Iraq, there had already been renewed calls to eject U.S. forces from the country in response to the airstrikes on Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is technically operating under the auspices by the Iraqi government. Months of protests, notably from demonstrators largely opposed to Iranian influence in the country, have already weakened the Iraqi government and this recent series of events, culminating in Soleimani’s death, have put it in an extremely disadvantageous position. 

Whatever happens now, it is safe to say that the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, and likely beyond, has dramatically and fundamentally changed in ways that are still very much unfolding.

UPDATE: 12:45am EST—

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed “severe revenge” and said that Soleimani’s death will prompt those “resisting” the United States and Israel to redouble their efforts. He also declared three days of mourning. 

A meeting of Iran’s National Security Council is now underway, as well. The Iranians also summoned the Swiss ambassador to issue a formal complaint about the U.S. action. Since the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Iran, the Swiss government acts as a go-between.

U.S. defense officials have confirmed that a drone operated by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) carried out the strike. They have also said that the United States is well postured to respond to Iranian retaliation. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has lauded the strike and is a major supporter of the Trump Administration, also called for taking all the steps necessary to safeguard U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. 

We have ended our updates to this story and you can find continuing coverage of this major event here.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.