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Strategic blundering: Killing Soleimani

  • 08 January 2020


When US President Donald Trump suggested in a briefing at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that an option on the table was the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force, those in attendance were caught by surprise.

It seemed a slightly outlandish option; previous US presidents of both Republican and Democratic persuasion had seen targeting the Iranian general as foolish, potentially precipitating unforseen events. But the Trump administration has retained, from its inception, a number of Iran hawks. They had the numbers that day, and Trump needed a distraction from domestic ills.

Once it became clear that Trump was serious, US intelligence got busy. But it was hardly an impressive feat identifying Soleimani. The general had become more conspicuous and cavalier in visiting Iraq. It became clear that he would be arriving in Baghdad International Airport on 3 January at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This gave US forces the cue for a lethal drone strike.

The news came from the US Defence Department in a statement. 'General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.' The strike 'was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.' Soleimani was singled out for a range of operations against US assets, including attacks on coalition forces in Iraq over the last several months and those on the US embassy in Baghdad on 31 December 2019.

The killing was also imprudent on another level. Keeping company with Soleimani in his charred vehicle was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a Shia militia deputy commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hash a-Shaabi. Muhandis had form with the US. In 1983, he was accused of masterminding the bombing of the US and French embassies in Kuwait. In 2006 he became a prominent founding figure of the Kataib Hezbollah group in Iraq, making things difficult for US occupation forces through the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). For doing so, he was deemed a terrorist.

A theme emerged from various apologias as justifications for the attack. Trump insisted that the killings had taken place to avert, not encourage, conflict. This reasoning was highly idiosyncratic: killing a ranking general of a sovereign power is hardly suggestive of restraint.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo