Saturday , January 25 2020

U.S. airstrikes kill six north of Baghdad, day after targeting Qassim Soleimani

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. has carried out a new airstrike targeting a commander in Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force near camp Taji north of Baghdad on Saturday, killing at least six people and wounding several others, a day after an American drone strike killed Qassim Soleimani, a top Iranian general.

A new strike targeted a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary network whose Shiite-majority factions have close ties to Iran, the group said in a statement. It did not say who was responsible but Iraqi state television reported it was a US air strike.

Two of the three vehicles making up a convoy were found burned, the source said, as well as six burned corpses. The strikes took place at 1:12 am local time, he said.



The attack comes less than 24 hours after the Americans killed Soleimani, the head of Iran s Quds Force and only hours after Donald Trump insisted that the US “took action last night to stop a war…. not to start a war.”

The airstrike came ahead of a planned a mourning march for Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary heavyweight Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, slain in a precision drone strike by the U.S.

The assassination was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between Iran and the US, which pledged to send more troops to the region even as US President Donald Trump insisted he did not want war.

 

The killing was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between the US and Iran, which Iraqis fear could play out in their homeland.

A police source told AFP the bombardment north of Baghdad left “dead and wounded,” without providing a specific toll. There was no immediate comment from the US.

The assassination of Soleimani, who had led the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ foreign operations branch and was Iran’s pointman on Iraq, rattled the region.

US officials said the 62-year-old, who had been blacklisted by the US, was killed when a drone hit his vehicle near Baghdad’s international airport.

A total of five Revolutionary Guards and five Hashed members were killed in the strike.


Elaborate mourning procession


Their bodies were to be taken through an elaborate mourning procession on Saturday, beginning with a state funeral in Baghdad and ending in the holy shrine city of Najaf.

The bodies of the Guards would then be sent to Iran, which had declared three days of mourning for Soleimani.

Tehran has already named Soleimani’s deputy, Esmail Qaani, to succeed him.

Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly promised “severe revenge” and tens of thousands of protesters in Tehran torched US flags and chanted “death to America.”



US President Donald Trump hailed the operation, saying he decided to “terminate” Soleimani after uncovering he was preparing an “imminent” attack on US diplomats and troops.

He insisted Washington did not seek a wider conflict, saying: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”

But the Pentagon said hours later that 3,000 to 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Global Response Force would be dispatched to Kuwait.

 

 

A US official had told AFP that some of the 750 troops already sent from that unit had arrived in Baghdad and would reinforce security at the US embassy there.

Some 14,000 other troops have already been deployed as reinforcements to the Middle East this year, reflecting steadily growing tensions with Iran.

There are approximately 5,200 US troops deployed across Iraq to help local forces ensure a lasting defeat of jihadists.

Pro-Iran factions in Iraq have seized on Soleimani’s death to push parliament to revoke the security agreement allowing their deployment on Iraqi soil.

Lawmakers are set to meet on Sunday for an emergency session on the strike and are expected to hold a vote.


Embassy storming


Paramilitary figures in Iraq including US-blacklisted Qais al-Khazaali and militiaman-turned-politician Moqtada Sadr called on their fighters to “be ready” after Friday’s strike.

And Lebanon’s Tehran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah warned of “punishment for these criminal assassins.”

Soleimani had long been considered a lethal foe by US lawmakers and presidents, with Trump saying he should have been killed “many years ago.”

The last straw was an attack by a pro-Iran mob on the US embassy in Baghdad this week, where demonstrators burned the entrance to the compound and besieged diplomats inside.

Following Friday’s strike, the embassy urged all American citizens to leave Iraq immediately and US nationals working at southern oil fields were being evacuated.

Analysts said the strike — which sent world oil prices soaring — would be a game-changer.

“Trump changed the rules — he wanted (Soleimani) eliminated,” said Ramzy Mardini, a researcher at the US Institute of Peace.

Phillip Smyth, a US-based specialist on Shiite armed groups, described the killing as “the most major decapitation strike that the US has ever pulled off.”



He expected “bigger” ramifications than the 2011 operation that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 raid that killed Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But many also worried that it could spill over into full-fledged conflict between the US and Iran within Iraq.

Ties between the US and Iran have deteriorated markedly since Washington abandoned a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions.

Iraqi premier Adel Abdel Mahdi warned the strike would “spark a devastating war in Iraq” as President Barham Saleh pleaded “voices of reason” to prevail.


Soleimani’s killing thrusts U.S. into uncharted territory


By ordering Friday’s air strike on the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign legions, President Donald Trump has taken the United States and its allies into uncharted territory in its confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.

The Iranian leadership may bide its time.

But most analysts believe this blow to its prestige, plus Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei’s personal commitment to Soleimani and his campaign to forge an axis of Shi’ite paramilitary power across the Levant and into the Gulf, means Iranian reprisals will be lethal.

It risks a slide into direct conflict with the United States that could engulf the whole region.

“The direct assassination of Soleimani by the United States is a naked challenge and Iran has to carry out a major face-saving act to respond,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “This is not the end of it.”

Soleimani, who made his name in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, rose in 1998 to command the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni rule and brought Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to power, the Quds Force built up a powerful array of proxy militias to harry the U.S. occupation.

They were modelled on Hezbollah, the Shi’ite paramilitary force Iran created in Lebanon – but in Iraq they were four times bigger.

When Syria was plunged into war by the Sunni rebellion that started in 2011, Soleimani mobilised Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias to save President Bashar al-Assad and establish a new Quds fortress.

That enabled Iran to link up its paramilitary proxies in a Shi’ite axis of power across Iraq and through Syria to the Mediterranean, alarming U.S. allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.


NETHER FORGOTTEN NOR FORGIVEN


Soleimani, the architect of this muscular policy, then became a regional legend and popular icon in Iran after his forces spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

But the seemingly inexorable success of Soleimani’s paramilitary strategy – permanently mobilized militias armed with precision missiles and drones – came at a cost.

In Iraq, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the 100,000-strong paramilitary alliance at the sharp end of the power struggle between Iran and the United States, may have over-reached.

At the instigation of Soleimani and the Quds Force, PMF units have stepped up harassment of U.S. troops in Iraq.

But the killing of an American contractor at a base in northern Iraq attacked by the Kataib Hezbollah militia last week prompted U.S. air strikes that killed 25 pro-Iranian fighters.

In response, the militias laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, breaking through the perimeter before withdrawing.

That reminder of the occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 – a humiliation Americans have never forgiven – may have prompted Trump, facing re-election as well as impeachment this year, to sign Soleimani’s death warrant.

“The Americans have never forgotten the storming of their embassy in Tehran and the hostage-taking,” says Sarkis Naoum, a leading regional analyst.

“This issue for them was bigger than Soleimani’s killing,” he added. “Their embassy was the symbol of the nation and their influence.”


MULTI-PRONGED RESPONSE?


From Iran’s point of view, protests against corruption and bad governance in Iraq and Lebanon are a reminder of the start of the Syrian conflict in which Soleimani’s forces intervened to save Assad.

Soleimani travelled to both countries in recent weeks to ensure his Hezbollah and PMF allies held the line to protect Iran’s political and military influence.

After the elimination of Soleimani, Iran is expected to double down in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen on what it regards as its forward lines of defence against a U.S.-led attempt to encircle it with the help of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran has already given examples of how it can respond.

After the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and other world powers in 2015, the IRGC and its proxies progressed from limited attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf to spectacular missile and drone assaults on Saudi oil installations.

Analysts now see a multi-pronged Iranian response against the United States and its allies as certain.

Already the Soleimani killing has united otherwise fractious Iraqi Shi’ite groups in demanding U.S. forces quit Iraq.

A senior official in the Iranian-led regional military alliance said: “When the Americans take this deliberate decision to kill Soleimani it means they have taken a decision for war.”

“There will not be a quick revenge,” said Carnegie’s Hage Ali. “Even in a situation like this they are cold, they consider their options and then they react. It will take time but all options are on the table.”

The Soleimani operation “is a strike into the heart of Iran: they have not just killed Iran’s military mastermind in the region but taken out a future leader of Iran”, Naoum said.

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