That first attack came unexpectedly. On December 27, shortly after sunset, a military vehicle approached cautiously
That first attack came unexpectedly. On December 27, shortly after sunset, a military vehicle cautiously approached the K1 base in the troubled Iraqi city of Kirkuk, 250 kilometers north of Baghdad. It was placed in position. At 7:30 p.m., the vehicle, carrier of a Katyusha rocket launcher battery, fired 31 107-mm missiles at a base that housed a hundred US and other military instructors. Nawres Waleed Hamid, an American contractor and interpreter of Iraqi origin, died in the bombing. Several other people were injured.
The operation was part of a pattern of harassment by Iraqi militias backed by Iran against US forces. A new attempt to put pressure on economic sanctions that are leading the Iranian economy to collapse. This time, however, the offensive would trigger a series of events that would end up putting Iran and the US on the brink of war. Tensions that, despite the recent de-escalation, have not yet completely dissipated. These days numerous details have emerged about those vertiginous days thanks to the investigations of various media, both American and other countries, which have allowed us to rebuild those fast-paced hours.
At first, both the soldiers on the ground and the US military intelligence thought that those responsible for the attack had been members of an Islamic State under reconstruction, very active in the area. However, within a few hours, the researchers reached a different conclusion: behind the onslaught was, in all likelihood, a powerful militia called Kataib Hezbollah, one of Tehran’s main tools on Iraqi soil. There were elements to suspect it.
By mid-October, the intelligence services had detected a meeting between the commanders of the main pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Qasem Soleimani, the legendary commander of the Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The meeting would take place in a village on the banks of the Tigris River, not far from the US Embassy in Baghdad. According to several Iraqi and US security sources related to the Reuters agency, Soleimani had instructed these militias to increase offensives against US targets. Iranian operatives had been introducing weapons across the Iraqi border for weeks, including Katyusha rockets and small single-person missiles capable of shooting down helicopters.
The plan was to provoke a US military response that would allow the population to go to Washington. The moment was critical. In Iraq, the population had been on the streets for weeks demanding the departure of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, very close to Tehran. Iran is increasingly seen as another occupying force in the country. The repression at the hands of the pro-Iranian militias, which by then had already claimed more than a hundred and a half-dead, had failed to placate the protests. It was necessary to act: Soleimani ordered Kataib Hezbollah to form a new militia with low-profile members, which would be “difficult for Americans to detect.”
Qasem Soleimani, the “commander of the shadows,” was an old acquaintance of the United States. After the invasion of Iraq, their forces had instructed the insurgency in guerrilla techniques and improvised explosives, which had caused numerous casualties among the US ranks. The Pentagon considered him responsible for the death of more than half a thousand US soldiers. His name was little known to the general public outside of Iran, but all US officials who had served in the Middle East had heard of him. Many hated him deeply. But few with as much intensity as the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
The most extreme option
After learning about the attack in Kirkuk, the White House asked the Pentagon to present President Donald Trump with a range of possible answers. Among the proposed plans was to sink Iranian ships, bomb missile facilities or attack militia camps in Iraq. But the most radical was to kill General Soleimani. A possibility that had also been before at the table of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but that both had rejected because of the potential consequences.
Trump enjoyed 24 hours to make the decision. The range of options worked according to an old trick of military advisers. The logic, according to ‘The New York Times’, was that when presenting an option considered too extreme, the president would favor a more moderate one. It was what Secretary of Defense James Mattis had done in April 2017, after the chemical attack in the Syrian town of Jan Sheikhun. Trump had reacted viscerally to the images of the victims his daughter Ivanka showed him. His first impulse was to order the assassination of Bashar Al Assad. “Let’s kill that son of a bitch,” he would have said. Instead, Mattis managed to convince him of the risks involved. The US president then opted for a missile operation against the Shayrat Airbase, from where the chemical attacks had been launched.
The advantages and disadvantages of each option were explained to the president. Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, said neither in favor nor against killing Soleimani, but she dropped that the threat that the general represented was greater than that of the Iranian response. Haspel, in fact, predicted that Tehran would probably take revenge by attacking US military installations with missiles in the region. “Officials who heard her analysis came out with the clear impression that the CIA believed that killing him would improve, not weaken, security in the Middle East,” says The New York Times.
On December 28, General Mark Milley, chief of the US General Staff, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Trump at his residence in Mar-a-Lago. The president had made a decision: they would attack Kataib Hezbollah in their territory. Hours later, three militia camps in Iraq and two in Syria were bombed by the US air force.
We can only speculate on Soleimani’s reaction, but the truth is that his plan had failed. Few in Syria, let alone in Iraq, cried for the fallen militiamen. But if there was no spontaneous insurrection against the Americans in Baghdad, one could always be orchestrated. Soleimani then made the biggest mistake of his entire career, one that would cost him his life: he ordered the militias to prepare to besiege the US Embassy in the country.
The man who hated Soleimani
The animosity of Mike Pompeo towards Soleimani came from afar, at least a decade. Although he has not served in the army, the Secretary of State studied at West Point, where he cultivated numerous friendships in the armed forces. Mark Esper had been his classmate at the prestigious military academy. He knew firsthand the stories about the ravages that improvised explosives caused among the troops in Iraq. Pompeo – whom many consider an Islamophobe – was a fierce detractor of the nuclear agreement with Iran. He believed that Tehran was the main problem of US foreign policy. And, as Iranian penetration in the region increased, its fixation grew.
This obsession reached the point of trying to get a visa to travel to Iran in 2016, when Pompeo was still a congressman for Kansas, with the secret objective of trying to meet Soleimani and face him, as close friends have explained. The visa was finally denied. He even assured his circle: “I will not retire from public service until Soleimani is off the battlefield.“
Pompeo is largely seen as responsible for the “maximum pressure” policy against Iran and is in favor of military action against the country. According to several testimonies, Trump’s decision to abort an attack on Iranian facilities last June was a big disappointment for him. But now there was a new opportunity to teach Tehran a lesson.
When the attack occurred in Kirkuk, Pompeo began to build his arguments. According to CNN, none of those present at the meetings – Espe, Milley, Haspel and national security adviser Robert O’Brien – was opposed to ending Soleimani. But we would still have to wait a few days until another incident finished tilting the balance in its favor.
On New Year’s Eve, exalted groups stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad, breaking the fence and entering the compound. While protesters vandalized some areas of the legation, diplomatic personnel took refuge in a safe area, fearing for their freedom and even for their lives. Many thought of a reissue of the 1979 hostage crisis, when Iranian students held 66 US diplomats and citizens for more than a year. And as at that time, the Revolutionary Guard was the one who really moved the threads. The assailants were members of the pro-Iran Iraqi militias, in an operation coordinated by Soleimani. The siege lasted just over a day, but the damage was done.
A furious president
9,000 kilometers away, the most powerful man in the world was watching the images of the incident on a giant television in his residence in Florida. What I had in mind was not Tehran in 1979 but another more recent crisis: Benghazi in 2012. That episode, in which jihadist militias assaulted the US consulate in eastern Libya and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three US military officers, was politically exploited by the Republican Party to lash out at then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accusing her of negligence and bad faith. The last thing Trump wanted was a reverse scandal. And on the contrary, a forceful action would make him appear strong in front of his predecessor Obama, whom he hates so much.
The next day a conclave was held in Mar-a-Lago to decide what measures to take. According to a Washington Post source, senior officials reminded Trump that after Iran had mined ships, destroyed an American drone and probably attacked a Saudi oil facility, he had not responded. “If you never answer them, they believe they can always get away with it”, he said a senior White House probably Pompeo itself.
The decision had been made. They would go for Soleimani. To the horror of many Pentagon planners and admired astonishment of others, the president had opted for the riskiest option. One that could take them to the brink of a war with Iran that would affect the entire Middle East.
Hunt the man without a trace
Qassem Soleimani was not a careless man. As his associates have described after his death, the general used different points of entry into Iraq to reduce the possibility of an attack. Sometimes he flew to Baghdad, sometimes to Najaf, sometimes to Iraqi Kurdistan, from where he traveled by car to the capital. Sometimes it crossed directly from Iran at the border post of Munthiriya.
“They had always traveled without a prior date and without announcing their destination. They used regular airlines. They did not pass through the usual channels to stamp their passports at airports. They did not use ‘smartphones’ and moved in ordinary cars with the least possible number of people, “a leader close to Al Muhandis explained to the publication ‘Middle East Eye’ after his death. “Above all, it was difficult to track them. But the airports of Damascus and Baghdad are full of pro-American intelligence sources. That’s why they have been hunted.”
By the time the order to eliminate Soleimani was given, the general had disappeared again. The US intelligence services activated all its antennas in the area. Suddenly, on January 3, someone warned that he had been located in Beirut, where he was going to meet Hezbollah’s general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah. According to the sources of the ‘MEE’ media, the purpose was to discuss the preparations that the Lebanese militia would adopt before a possible regional confrontation with the US. Soleimani avoided spending more time in Lebanon than was strictly necessary and as soon as he could he drove to Damascus. There he boarded a flight to Baghdad, whose departure was delayed two hours for unknown reasons.
Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the second leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Militias, also left nothing to chance. He was informed shortly in advance that Soleimani was about to land at the airport in the Iraqi capital. He immediately prepared a small convoy consisting of a Hyundai Starks minibus and a Toyota Avalon, designed not to attract attention, and headed to the airport. There, the Damascus flight, which lasted just over an hour, landed shortly after midnight. Soleimani and his companions were allowed to access by a special route, avoiding the passport line.
What they didn’t know was that an MQ-9 Reaper drone had taken off from an unknown location – probably a base in Qatar – and had placed itself near Baghdad airport, waiting for vehicles. The United States still had to solve a small detail: who would receive Soleimani at the airport. If they were members of the Iraqi Government, nominally US allies, the attack would have to be cancelled. But someone on the ground, those responsible for the militias believe, identified the reception party as members of Kataib Hezbollah.
At 5:00 p.m. in the US – 1:00 a.m. in Baghdad – President Trump gave the final green light to the operation. The drone waited for the vehicles to leave the airport and placed themselves on them. At 1:45, a missile blew up the Hyundai, while a second projectile exploded alongside the Toyota. The car tried to accelerate, but a third missile flew it up. The burning bodies illuminated the Baghdad night for a long time. The Iraqi authorities needed hours to identify the victims.
A defeat for Iran … for now
Many observers put their hands to their heads after the attack. If before the bombing of Sharyat in 2017 the White House had followed the normal consultation process with senior officials, this time almost everyone found out about the news. Faced with criticism, Trump’s response was to publish a tweet with the United States flag.
Few doubted there would be consequences. The next day, the Iraqi Parliament voted for a resolution demanding the departure of US troops from the country, an issue not yet resolved. In Iran, funerals and displays of grief and rejection of the death of Soleimani were the most massive concentrations since the Islamic Revolution. And everyone, from the assassin’s general’s daughter to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rohani or ordinary Iranians, demanded revenge. Hossein Dehghani, the military adviser of Khamenei, said that this would be “military and against military installations. And it will be Iran itself that will carry it out.”
That’s how it went. For three days, the world held its breath at the possible Iranian response, until at dawn on January 7 to 8 the Iranian air force launched about thirty missiles against two Iraqi military bases that housed US soldiers. The attack was intended to send a message to Washington but avoiding causing casualties as much as possible. The Iranian army warned the Iraqi authorities that the attack was going to take place.
The conversation came to the US intelligence services, so their troops were able to take cover before the impact of the projectiles. There were no deaths and very little material damage. The day would end up being a strategic defeat for Iran after its anti-aircraft batteries accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane that was taking off from Tehran airport.
The White House has chosen not to continue increasing tensions, opting for a new round of sanctions against Iran. The double decapitation of Soleimani and Al Muhandis has left Iraqi militias without leadership, confused and in a state of chaos, as they admit from their ranks. Right now, they lament, they are not in a position to continue attacking the United States. Meanwhile, Trump boasts of Soleimani’s death at rallies for his re-election, boasting of having “served American-style justice” and lashing out at the Democratic Party for not blindly backing him.
The Iranian heir, his veteran lieutenant Esmail Qaani, has promised to expel the US from the Middle East, but he lacks the charisma of his predecessor and is unlikely to be able to achieve the same ascendant over ‘proxy’ networks abroad. But Soleimani, despite its legend, was a mere piece of a well-oiled gear. Sooner or later, Iran will cover the gap it has left. Numerous experts believe that Iran’s revenge has not yet taken place and that when it arrives, this time it will be dead on the table. Be that as it may, the Middle East is no longer the same.