On the orders of US President Donald Trump, US forces killed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in a drone strike at the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq early on Friday. Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and several other members of Iraqi militias backed by Tehran were also killed in the air raid.
A statement released by the US Department of Defense on January 2 stated that the US military had taken the “decisive step to protect US personnel abroad by killing Soleimani, the head of Quds Force, which is the overseas operations wing of the IRGC and a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation.
The statement mentioned that Soleimani was “actively developing” plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and “throughout the region” and that the strike was undertaken to deter future Iranian attack plans.
“General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week,” the statement said.
What does Soleimani’s death mean for US-Iran relations?
Soleimani’s death would result in a dramatic escalation in relations between the US and Iran, especially considering the events of last week, when a US airstrike on the Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militia was followed by storming of the US embassy in Baghdad by pro-Iranian militiamen. The US believes that the KH militia is aligned with the Quds Force. Besides IRGC, the Hezbollah and the Kata’ib Hezbollah have also been designated as international terrorist organisations by the US.
On Friday, Tehran Times reported the leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei as saying that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack. Following his killing, the US embassy in Baghdad has urged all US citizens to depart immediately.
The KH since several months has been leading a campaign against the presence of US forces in Iraq. On December 27, KH’s attempts to drive them out ended with rocket attacks, as a result of which an American contractor was killed. The US retaliated on December 29 and struck three KH sites in Iraq and two KH bases in Syria, according to the think tank Atlantic Council. This was followed by pro-Iranian allies and KH militia forces storming the US embassy compound in Baghdad on December 31 against the US strike.
What is the Quds Force?
Until his death, Soleimani commanded the Quds Force, which is the Arabic word for Jerusalem, and is responsible for carrying out unconventional warfare and intelligence activities. The force is responsible for training, financing and providing assistance to some extremist groups overseas.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini set up the IRGC in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution ended to protect the Islamic order of the new Iranian government. According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the IRGC has contributed roughly 125,000 men to Iran’s forces and has the capability of undertaking asymmetric warfare and covert operations. This includes the Quds Force that over the years has established links with the Hezbollah of Lebanon, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Shi’ites in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.
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In 2007, then US President George Washington Bush publicly charged the Quds Forces for providing sophisticated IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to Iraqi Sh’ite militias who during a raid killed four US soldiers in Karbala, Iraq.
The developments of the relationships between the Quds and overseas militias is essentially a part of the proxy war that is ongoing between Iran and Saudi Arabia mainly to project their dominance and influence in the middle-east. While Iran has a majority Shia population, Saudi Arabia has a majority Sunni population, both of which are considered to be rival sects within Islam.
Significantly, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 following the 9/11 attacks in a bid to root out terrorism, destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and end the rule of the dictator Saddam Hussein. The US troops wouldn’t leave for the next eight years, until 2011 after then President Barack Obama vowed to withdraw troops during his election campaign.
Even so, the US intervened again in 2014 after an agreement was struck with the Iraqi government to assist them in their fight against the Islamic State. Today, there are estimated to be over 5,000 US troops in Iraq.
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