LONDON – In October, Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani met with his Iraqi Shiite militia allies at a villa on the banks of the Tigris River, looking across at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The Revolutionary Guards commander instructed his top ally in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and other powerful militia leaders to step up attacks on U.S. targets using sophisticated new weapons provided by Iran, said two militia commanders and two security sources briefed on the gathering. The strategy session, which has not been previously reported, came as mass protests against Iran's growing influence in Iraq were gaining momentum, putting the Islamic Republic in an unwelcome spotlight. Soleimani's plans to attack U.S. forces aimed to provoke a military response that would redirect that rising anger toward the United States, according to the sources, Iraqi Shiite politicians and government officials close to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Soleimani's efforts ended up provoking the U.S. attack on Friday that killed him and al-Muhandis, marking a major escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran.
PARIS/BAGHDAD – Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shiite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said. Any sign that Iran is preparing a more aggressive missile policy in Iraq will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and Washington, already heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. It would also embarrass France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, as they have been trying to salvage the agreement despite new U.S. sanctions against Tehran. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own. "The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked," one senior Iranian official said.
Allies and enemies of America alike were taken aback by the move. Many experts saw the killing of a general from a country with which the U.S. was not officially at war to be a potential violation of international law. In Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, Shiite demonstrators vowed to take revenge, while in Iran itself, leaders proclaimed a three-day mourning period, during which millions of Iranians took to the streets in memory of the "martyr." The killing of Soleimani marks the beginning of a new and dangerous era in the Middle East, in which traditional rules of waging war no longer apply, with eye-for-an-eye logic once again pushed to the fore. Are we on the eve of open warfare between Iran and the U.S.? Below the surface, the conflict has long since begun.
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the top commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, helped Iran fight proxy wars across the Middle East by inspiring militias on the battlefield and negotiating with political leaders. His death on Friday in a U.S. airstrike on his convoy at Baghdad airport marked the end of a man who was a celebrity at home and closely watched by the United States, Israel and Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon said the strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. Soleimani was responsible for clandestine overseas operations and was often seen on battlefields guiding Iraqi Shiite groups in the war against Islamic State. He was killed along with top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Formed in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion, the secretive Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) is one of the smallest Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, with an estimated 5,000 members. But it is considered one of the most dangerous. During the recent war against Islamic State, Kataeb received battlefield training from Lebanon's Hezbollah. Kataeb has long targeted U.S. forces and was one of the earliest groups to dispatch fighters to Syria to support President Bashar Assad in the civil war. In 2009, Washington declared Kataeb Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization, saying it threatened stability in Iraq, one of the most important U.S. allies in the Arab world.