New Details About Strike On Top Iranian Commander Emerge As Americans Are Told To Flee Iraq (Updated)

Thousands of American troops are heading to the Middle East as Iraqi officials are mulling kicking the U.S. military out and amid Iranian threats.

ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/DoD/Pool/Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, posed an "imminent" threat and that a drone strike that killed him and the other occupants of two SUVs outside of Baghdad International Airport in Iraq "saved American lives." At the same time, repercussions from the unprecedented U.S. military operation are being felt, with the increasing possibility that the Iraqi government might order American forces out of the country and the State Department itself urging American citizens to leave as soon as possible. The United States has also formally decided to send thousands more troops to the region to bolster security as countries throughout the Middle East brace for any number of responses from Iran and its proxies.

A drone under the control of the Joint Special Operations Command, reportedly an MQ-9 Reaper, carried out the mission. The Iranian regime has now confirmed that Soleimani along with four other members of the country's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), died in the strike. The Quds Force is the part of the IRGC responsible for conducting and coordinating terrorist and militant activities outside of Iran. "Highly classified information from informants, electronic intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft, and other surveillance" went into the planning of the strike, according to The New York Times

"I can’t talk too much about the nature of the threat," Secretary Pompeo said in an interview on CNN's "New Day" on Jan. 3, 2020. Pompeo did describe the threat as "imminent" and stressed that it was directed at American interests in the Middle East, but declined to elaborate. 

“It was the time to take this action so we could disrupt this plot... The risk of doing nothing was enormous, the intelligence committee made that assessment," he added. “We will do our best to release everything we know that’s appropriate that doesn’t put anyone at risk."

“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught!” U.S. President Donald Trump also wrote in a series of Tweets. “He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself.”

It's not entirely clear how long the strike on Soleimani had been in the making. The New York Times has reported that the White House approved the plan to kill the Quds Force commander on Dec. 27, 2019, immediately after a rocket attack on K-1 base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which killed a U.S. contractor and wounded American troops. An earlier statement from the Pentagon about Soleimani's death had blamed him and the Iranian government of masterminding a rocket attack on K-1 base. That incident had already prompted American airstrikes on Kata'ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, which actually carried out the attack on K-1, on Dec. 29.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and close confidant of U.S. President Donald Trump, also told Fox News on Jan. 3 that he had received a briefing about a potential targeted strike "when I was down in Florida." Reporters had spotted Graham at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort on Dec. 30 and 31, 2019. This further indicates that the actual planning for the operation underway beforehand.

This would also mean that the Trump Administration had decided to strike Soleimani before the subsequent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31. The U.S. military had also said that the Quds Force commander orchestrated that incident, which was ostensibly in response to the airstrikes. Members of Kata'ib Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported militias in Iraq operating under the umbrella of the Iraqi government's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), along with their supporters, carried out that attack, as well. 

In the aftermath of the Embassy attack, the U.S. military sent portions of a U.S. Marine Corps crisis-response force from Kuwait to bolster security at that diplomatic compound. It also announced that it would be deploying personnel from one brigade of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, as well as supporting troops, which together form what is now called the Immediate Response Force (IRF), a rotating extremely high-readiness global response contingent that is on alert at all times, to various locations in the Middle East. 

Plane spotters using online flight tracking software also noticed the apparent deployment of special operations forces from Europe to the region. The massive air bridge to bring all these personnel and equipment into the theater, which involves U.S. military airlifters and other aircraft flying through various air bases and civilian airports on their way to various locations in the Middle East, as well as Turkey, and back again, is still ongoing. 

This is likely to continue in the near future as the U.S. military has now confirmed that it will send thousands more troops to the region. It appears that this is just a formal decision to send the remaining elements of the brigade-sized IRF, which consists of between 4,000 and 5,000 personnel, though additional units may be preparing to deploy, as well.

These deployments, especially activating the IRF, had also seemed somewhat excessive given that the Iraqi militias had caused no casualties during their attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad and had only done relatively limited damage to exterior portions the overall Embassy compound. However, it now seems very prudent in light of the response from Iran and its regional proxies to the death of Soleimani. It's important to note that Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, Kata'ib Hezbollah's leader and the Deputy Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee, which oversees the PMF, was also killed in the U.S. drone strike, which has already prompted additional calls for revenge from Iranian-backed elements in Iraq.

Fars News Agency

Qasem Soleimani, at right, speaks with Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, during the funeral for Soleimani's father in Iran in 2017.

"If we get word of attacks or some type of indication, we will take preemptive action, as well to protect American forces, to protect American lives," U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had told reporters on Jan. 2 before the strike on Soleimani. "So, the game has changed."

It's also worth pointing out that reports had emerged in early December 2019 that the U.S. government had new streams of intelligence indicating increased threats against American interests in the Middle East from Iran and its proxies. Only limited details about this new information subsequently emerged, but there were 11 rocket attacks on bases in Iraq housing American forces that month, including the one on K-1, all tied to Iranian-backed militias.

Whatever the case, Soleimani has been on the U.S. government's radar for decades now and American officials had considered targeting him on a number of occasions in the past. Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal says that he opted not to strike the Quds Force commander in Iraq in 2007, when he was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, for a number of reasons, including potential political blowback. At that time, the Quds Force was aiding groups in Iraq fighting the U.S.-led coalition there, as well as engaging in attacks directly.

President George W. Bush reportedly vetoed a proposal from the Central Intelligence Agency and Israel's Mossad to assassinate him in Syria the following year over similar concerns. The CIA and Mossad did kill Imad Mughniyeh, the second in command of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah in the Syrian capital Damascus, which was also part of the plan.

All told, it's not surprising that the fallout from killing Soleimani just in Iraq that is already unfolding lines up well with these known concerns dating back to the George W. Bush Administration. Making things particularly complicated is the Iraqi government's own strong connections with Iran and that the strike also killed an official representative of the Iraqi government, Kata'ib Hezbollah's chief Muhandis.

Iraqi authorities had already been publicly critical of the U.S. military's unilateral strikes against Kata'ib Hezbollah and the country's Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, has now issued an even more strongly-worded statement in response to the new strikes near Baghdad's airport. "The assassination of an Iraqi military commander holding an official position is an act of aggression against Iraq, and the Iraqi people," he said.

"The assassinations violate the conditions governing the presence of US forces in Iraq whose role is to train Iraqi forces and assist in the fight against Daesh as part of the Global Coalition," he continued. "We have today requested that the Council of Representatives (Parliament) holds an emergency session to take the appropriate legislative measures in a manner that preserves the dignity, security, and sovereignty of Iraq."

Pro-Iranian members of Iraq's parliament have been calling for the removal of U.S. forces for various reasons on and off for the last year or so and have now renewed their calls to do so. Muqtada al Sadr, a controversial Shia cleric and influential Iraqi politician, who was in Iran at the time of the strikes that killed Soleimani, has declared his intention to reform the Al Mahdi Army and Al-Yom Al-Maw'oud militias, which fought against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in the mid- and late-2000s.

Secretary Pompeo has insisted that killing Soleimani, who was a key player in coordinating Iranian support for terrorists and militants across the Middle East, as well as the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad, has left the world a safer place overall. However, the State Department is now reportedly considering evacuating its personnel from Iraq and has told U.S. citizens to stay away from the Embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. government has also issued an alert advising all Americans to leave the country as soon as possible, preferably by air, for fear they may become targets of terrorist attacks or kidnappings

Those are just two asymmetric options available to Iran and its regional proxies against Americans in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. You can read more in-depth about the various different avenues Iran has to respond to, short of an all-out war against the United States that it cannot hope to win and that would be devastating for all involved, in the War Zone's previous reporting about the strikes that killed the Quds Force commander.

For its part, Iran has declared three days of mourning for Soleimani and appointed his deputy of some 20 years, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to be the new head of the Quds Force. The Iranian regime has promised "severe revenge" for the American strikes and it seems hard to see how they will not retaliate in some fashion the future against the United States, as well as any of its allies or partners, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, it sees as also being responsible.

"Just as Israel has the right of self-defense, the United States has exactly the same right," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement commending President Trump personally on taking action against the Quds Force commander." Israel stands with the United States in its just struggle for peace, security, and self-defense."

Saudi Arabia does not appear to have issued a formal statement as of yet. “With knowledge of the operations and threats to the security of the region and the threats posed by terrorist militias that require their cessation, the Kingdom, in light of the rapid developments, calls for the importance of self-restraint to ward off all that may lead to aggravating the situation with its unbearable consequences,” an unnamed source told the country's Al Arabiya news network.

Other prominent American allies have largely avoided lauding the strikes outside the airport in Baghdad, which, by every indication, the U.S. carried out unilaterally. The United Kingdom has notably called on "all parties to de-escalate."  France has also said the American operation has made the world a "more dangerous" place.

The United Kingdom and France, along with Germany, Russia, and China, make up the remaining international partners to the controversial deal over Iran's nuclear program. These countries are no doubt concerned that the strikes could lead Iran to further escalate its violations of the terms of that agreement, steps the regime in Tehran has been pursuing for months now already in an effort to pressure the parties into granting it sanctions relief and other concessions. 

In the meantime, Iran and its proxies in Iraq seem to be immediately focused on burying their dead, but it seems hard to see how de-escalation will be on their minds in the near term.

UPDATE: 3:30pm EST—

President Trump has now said that he does not seek war with Iran or regime change in Tehran, but has also threatened to conduct more strikes against Iranian interests, if necessary, saying that other targets are "identified" already.

The U.S. State Department has now designated the Iraqi militant group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as a terrorist group, as well. Brothers Qays and Laith al-Khazali, who head the group, received their own designations.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously named Qays al-Khazali as one of the Iranian-sponsored actors responsible for the attack on the Embassy in Baghdad. He had notably fought against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, first as a member of Muqtada al Sadr's Al Madhi Army, before forming Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. This group was responsible for various terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and other acts of sectarian violence against the coalition and other Iraqis. Coalition forces detained Qays between 2007 and 2010, when he was released in a prisoner swap.

There are reports that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq fighters are preparing for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq now and that they believe American troops will be leaving the country soon.

In the meantime, American oil workers, among others, have begun to follow the advice of the U.S. government and leave the country. The increasingly worrisome security situation may make it difficult to do so, at least by air, in the future, with Royal Jordanian Airlines and Gulf Air both suspending flights to Baghdad indefinitely.

Elements of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based in Italy, is also reportedly now on alert for a possible deployment to Lebanon in light of increase security concerns there.

UPDATE: 6:15pm EST—

U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien has now told reporters that the United States chose to strike Soleimani because he was planning attacks on U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, but declined to offer any specifics. He also said that the Trump administration had used the authority within the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq, originally enacted to enable the American-led invasion of the country in 2003 and subsequent occupation.

NBC News is reporting that the potential attacks were set to come against American interests in Lebanon and Syria and it remains unclear what information indicated that the threats were imminent.

U.S. military officials have also told CNN that coalition operations against ISIS in Iraq are only proceeding on a "limited" basis as the immediate focus for American forces has shifted to force protection. Depending on how long this crisis lasts, and whether it leads to the U.S. military's expulsion from Iraq, the terrorist group could exploit the situation and regroup.

O'Brien added that he hoped the Iraqi government would not choose to eject U.S. forces. The "U.S. has invested enormous amounts of blood and treasure in helping the Iraqi[s] build up a democracy," he said.

In the meantime, the U.S. military is continuing to move more forces toward Middle East. The U.S. Navy has now scrapped a combined exercise in and around Morocco and is instead sending the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, as well as other elements of its Expeditionary Strike Group and the embarked 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit further east.

UPDATE: 6:35pm EST—

There are unconfirmed reports emerging now of an apparent airstrike against another small convoy carrying Popular Mobilization Forces members near Taji, Iraq, north of Baghdad. It is very possible that details about this incident will change soon, but Shubl al-Zaidi, commander of Kataib Imam Ali, another Iranian-backed militia under the PMF umbrella, was reportedly riding in one of the vehicles. Hamid al-Jazaeri, deputy head of Saraya al-Khorasani, which has fought in both Iraq and Syria and has ties to the Quds Force, was also reported to have been in the convoy.

UPDATE: 7:10pm EST—

There are conflicting reports about who may have been riding in the convoy that was struck in Taji. Some sources say Shubl al-Zaidi is in Lebanon and Hamid al-Jazaeri has released an audio recording denying his death.

There are also separate, unconfirmed reports that a strike claimed the life of a top IRGC official in Yemen.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com