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Has killing Soleimani backfired on the US?

Posted By on July 20, 2020 @ 11:00

US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has made the US and its allies more prone to blowback and further violence in the Middle East. The president has repeatedly justified his decision to kill Qassem Soleimani by claiming [1] that the Iranian commander posed ‘imminent threats’ to the US in the Middle East. Yet, neither members of Trump’s administration nor American intelligence officials have so far presented any tangible evidence that Soleimani was planning such attacks [2].

At the time of the drone attack in January, concerns were raised about the likely consequences of the killing. The assassination has, in fact, increased the threat to coalition troops, including members of the Australian Defence Force.

A closer look at how Iraq’s militia network was established and operated under Soleimani demonstrates how things have changed for the worse. Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, or PMU, were founded [3] in 2014 following a fatwa issued by Iraq’s most influential Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder and de facto leader of the PMU—also killed in the US strike—had united 50 disparate militia groups under the direct tutelage of Soleimani, who was commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The PMU’s mission was to take on the Islamic State terror group, which had conquered more than a third of Iraq by 2014.

In the recent past, much of the Western media regarded Soleimani as a hero and referred to him as a ‘legend [4]’, the ‘Shadow Commander’ and ‘Dark Knight [5]’. Reports described how he led the PMU’s major offensive against IS in Tikrit without US air support in March 2015. In a well-coordinated operation [6], Soleimani organised an army of around 30,000 Shia and Sunni fighters to retake the city.

In what is known as the second battle of Tikrit [7], a 9,000-strong assault force was deployed and then Sunni tribesmen were sent to pacify the city. Finally, forces were assigned to intelligence-gathering, reconstruction work, and protection of refugees and casualties.

In 2016, the Iraqi army, along with 16,000 PMU fighters and 500 American troops, defeated IS in Mosul in what Iraqi General Ghais al-Hamdawi described as a ‘superbly coordinated mission [8]’.

Soleimani’s leadership helped the PMU achieve military objectives where the US-trained Iraqi conventional military had failed. Yet, as Iraq became more dependent on Iran-trained militias, the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, became increasingly concerned about Iran’s power [9] projection in Iraq. Despite multiple instances of cooperation between coalition forces and the Iran-backed PMU in fighting IS, the US continued to blame Soleimani and his affiliated militia groups for assaults on Americans in Iraq.

With Trump’s authorisation, US forces carried out a drone strike that killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis on 3 January. This was seen by some as a ‘dangerous escalation [10]’, which led to Iran’s direct retaliatory attacks [11] on US bases in Iraq and galvanised an Iran-backed network of proxies into a more militant posture including further moves against coalition forces.

Iran seized the opportunity to encourage aggrieved groups to become more militant.

With the sudden change in the dynamics of the contest between Washington and Tehran, the Iran-backed militias transformed from a centralised cluster of non-state armed groups under the PMU banner into separate, flexible, smaller groups in Iraq.

Those vaguely described ‘imminent threats’ became reality after Soleimani’s death. Parts of the 140,000-strong militia force, which once worked under the PMU umbrella, have begun to form into seemingly independent groups whose connections are shrouded in secrecy. Groups such as the League of Revolutionaries [12] (Usbat al-Thairen), Ashab al-Kahf and Qabdat al-Hoda, which are reportedly formed by members of old Iran-backed groups, have maintained a clandestine relationship with Iran under new names.

The decentralisation of PMU groups appears intended to deny the involvement of previously established militias such as Kataib Hezbollah in attacks on US forces and deflect blame from Iran. In addition to such plausible deniability, the recalibration of Iran-backed proxies has maximised the unpredictability of these groups and decreased the ability of the US to deter militant assaults in Iraq.

What used to be regarded as low-level strikes against US targets by PMU-affiliated groups have been replaced by surprise attacks by rebranded militias that are pro-Iran but don’t have clear links to Tehran. For example, a group called Saraya Thorat al-Ashrin al-Sanieh released footage [13] of a purported attack on an American convoy in Iraq on 18 May and announced itself as a new, anti-US militia.

The same group claimed responsibility for another attack [14] on a coalition convoy in which several trucks were burned on 12 July.

Last week another new group, calling itself Ashab al-Kahf, claimed to have attacked [15] a US logistical convoy near Tikrit. The group appears to have targeted a column of trucks operated by Iraqi contractors.

Another group, calling itself the al-Muhandis Revenge Brigade, announced its establishment by claiming to have staged [16] an audacious attack on an American Chinook helicopter in Iraq on 17 April. The increasing attacks by these militia groups have reportedly [17] pushed US troops out of smaller, vulnerable outposts such as Taji, K1, al-Qaim and Key West to fortified bases in Iraq, Syria and Kuwait.

In a recent development, US-allied British forces are pulling out [18] of Taji base, where more than two dozen coalition personnel, including an American soldier, an American contractor and a British soldier, were killed or wounded in an attack [19] in March by the newly emerged League of Revolutionaries.

Iran’s readjusted strategy is intended to drain US-led forces of the will and resources to remain in Iraq. Iran may not see them actually leave, but it wants to make it as expensive as possible for them to remain.

In that, the US decision to kill the Iranian general has strengthened Iran’s hand.

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URLs in this post:

[1] claiming: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51068560

[2] attacks: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/14/trump-administration-issues-report-on-soleimani-killing.html

[3] founded: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/times-iraq-shia-militias-soleimani-killing-200122102304977.html

[4] legend: https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/03/04/pkg-holmes-soleimani-isis-in-iraq.cnn

[5] Dark Knight: https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/iranian-gen-qasem-soleimani-guiding-iraqi-forces-fight-against-isis-n321496

[6] operation: https://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/04/middleeast/iraq-tikrit-battle/index.html

[7] second battle of Tikrit: https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/intercepts/2015/03/02/iranian-general-again-in-iraq-for-tikrit-offensive/

[8] superbly coordinated mission: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/after-fighting-common-enemy-isis-how-will-rising-tensions-between-u-s-and-iran-affect-iraq

[9] power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T210O73dI7M

[10] dangerous escalation: https://mg.co.za/article/2020-01-12-00-soleimani-air-strike-why-this-is-a-dangerous-escalation-of-us-assassination-policy/

[11] attacks: https://www.wsj.com/articles/stampede-at-funeral-procession-for-iranian-commander-kills-35-11578390888?mod=article_inline

[12] League of Revolutionaries: https://thearabweekly.com/usbat-al-thairen-new-iran-backed-militia-iraqs-block

[13] footage: https://ida2at.org/news/2020/05/19/7642/بالفيديو-سرايا-شهداء-ثورة-العشرين-الثانية-تعلن-عن-تنفيذها-عملية-ض

[14] attack: https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/pro-iranian-militias-in-iraq-claim-attack-on-us-vehicles-634769

[15] attacked: https://twitter.com/nafisehkBBC/status/1283470099228364801?s=20

[16] staged: https://english.iswnews.com/13484/video-footage-of-surface-to-air-missile-attack-on-us-chinook-helicopter-in-iraq/

[17] reportedly: https://www.wsj.com/articles/militants-in-iraq-take-covert-approach-to-anti-u-s-campaign-11585220400

[18] pulling out: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/british-forces-pull-out-of-iraq-s-taji-base-even-as-fight-against-isis-rages-1.1050342

[19] attack: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-led-coalition-to-withdraw-hundreds-of-troops-from-smaller-bases-in-iraq/2020/03/16/4af2b69e-6783-11ea-b199-3a9799c54512_story.html

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