On January 2, 2020, Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC Qods Force since 1998, took a well-deserved dirt nap.
This has triggered a wave of prognostication illustrating a blinding level of ignorance of the context of the killing, or what came before it.
Soleimani joined the IRGC during or just after the original Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is one hand of the Islamic Revolution, the other being the Council of Guardians. (More on them later.) The IRGC is divided between the Basij (paramilitary militias raised for primarily domestic enforcement of the Revolution’s Khomeinist Shi’a ideology) and the Qods Force, which handles foreign engagement. Which primarily consists of support, training, and direct action for terror groups, most notably Hezbollah. The same Hezbollah responsible for the killing of 241 US Marines on October 23, 1983, in the Beirut Barracks bombing.
So, what does the Qods Force and Soleimani have to do with Iraq? A lot.
The Qods Force being the primary foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolution, it was instrumental in the Shi’a insurgency in Iraq following the invasion. The EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile) IEDs used against many coalition convoys on the MSRs in Iraq came from Iran. Guess who facilitated the traffic?
Following the general collapse of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS’ rise in 2014, the Iraqi government (already deeply influenced by Tehran following the departure of the majority of US troops in 2012) launched the Popular Mobilization Forces or Popular Mobilization Units. These have also been called Shi’a Militia Groups. Many, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, had previously been founded by Qods Force and were granted official sanction by Baghdad in the desperation surrounding the ISIS Crisis. AAH had been active since 2006, and had launched over 6000 attacks against US and coalition forces before the drawdown. And that’s just one.
One of the biggest such PMUs lately, however, has been Kataib Hezbollah, which has a history every bit as long and bloody as AAH. And that is where we come to more current events leading up to the drone strike that killed Soleimani.
While it would seem on the surface that the Coalition and the PMF/PMUs had a common enemy in ISIS, which is an even more extreme Sunni Wahhabist offshoot of Al Qaeda (in fact, ISIS’ progenitor was Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was enough of a savage to get rebuked by Bin Laden himself), that kind of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic doesn’t go far in the Middle East. Especially not with the Islamic Revolution.
The PMF units have made no secret of their hatred for Americans. And on December 27, 2019, KH forces launched 30 rockets at K1 Airbase outside of Kirkuk, killing an American contractor as well as wounding several American and Iraqi military personnel.
Tensions with Iran have been elevated for most of the last year, as the Iranians have conducted more and more provocations, including seizing oil tankers and shooting down an American drone during the summer. A retaliatory strike for the drone was called off, purportedly because President Trump decided not to kill people over a drone.
But this time, an American was killed. So, several Kataib Hezbollah camps were struck by airstrikes over the following couple of days, killing an estimated 25-30.
Now, before we get to what comes next, there is some added Iraqi context that needs to be addressed.
Starting in October, Shi’a Iraqis throughout Baghdad and the south of the country began demonstrating, calling for the resignation of the Iraqi government, which they accused of being corrupt and puppets of the Iranians. Even the Shi’a in Iraq don’t want to bend the knee to Tehran; the older people remember the Iran-Iraq War.
What ensued was chaos. Large portions of the Iraqi Army sided with the protesters, and were therefore disarmed by order of the government, and the task of suppressing the riots was turned over to…the PMF.
What followed was bloody. It is estimated that over 500 Iraqi civilians have been killed by PMF since October, 2019. They have opened fire with live ammunition, when they weren’t killing people with direct hits to the head with 40mm smoke grenades. Yet the protesters have hung in there, still gathered at Tahrir Square, kept out of the Green Zone by Iraqi security forces and PMF.
Then, on December 31, 2019, uniformed crowds of PMF entered the Green Zone under orders from Abu Mahdi al Muhandes, and besieged the US Embassy in retaliation for the airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah camps previously mentioned.
They set guard posts on fire, tried to climb the walls, and lobbed Molotov cocktails and rocks inside the compound. Graffiti spray-painted on the gates said, “Qasem Soleimani is our leader.”
Leaders were calling for a siege to last until all American presence was removed from Iraq. Others vowed to take revenge on every American employee within the Embassy compound.
Meanwhile, Soleimani was calling for attacks on the British and Bahraini Embassies as well.
The Tahrir Square protesters were quick to point out that they had nothing to do with the riots; that in fact, the militias besieging the Embassy were the same ones responsible for murdering 500+ Iraqi civilians in the last several months.
At the end of the second day, the militia rioters had moved away from the Embassy, but the assault wasn’t one that could be ignored. On January 2nd, after landing at Baghdad International Airport and meeting with Abu Musab al Muhandes, Soleimani’s motorcade was hit, killing him and al Muhandes.
This has since been characterized as an assassination. I’ll let Brad Taylor, former SFOD-D officer and fellow thriller author, put that one to bed. He does it better than I would. Short version, Soleimani wasn’t assassinated any more than Isoroku Yamamoto was when his Betty was shot down over the Solomons.
Which finally brings us to the question. Are we about to get into a war with Iran? The recent missile attack on Al Asad Airbase and Irbil from Iran certainly makes the matter seem even more urgent.
To which I say, “Haven’t you been paying attention for the last forty years?”
We have been at war with Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It has been a war mostly fought by Iranian proxies, proxies marshaled, directed, and supported by the IRGC Qods Force. Prior to 9/11, Iranian proxy forces had killed more Americans than any other terror group.
This is an escalation. Only time will tell where it leads; whether we will descend back into the low background roar of sanctions, terror attacks, and the occasional airstrike in retaliation, or if the final reckoning is at hand. But it isn’t new, and it isn’t coming out of the blue.
There are those saying, “We don’t need a war with Iran!” They are operating on a couple of mistaken assumptions. One is that all wars can be picked and chosen. Wars aren’t video games, that you can shut off. Wars don’t actually need “two to tango.” All a war really takes is one belligerent. Then the alternatives are to fight, or to surrender. The other mistaken assumption, of course, is that we haven’t already been at war with Iran.
If this is the “final reckoning,” will it be quick and victorious? After all, while little word has been getting out, the Iranians have been rising up much like the Iraqis of late. They burned the Iranian Central Bank in Behbahan to the ground in mid-November. The Council of Guardians has a lot of domestic unrest to worry about, as well as their foreign adventures. They are in a fragile position.
But that doesn’t mean that what is to come is going to be quick or clean. War is destruction and chaos, and the IRGC is already skilled in assymetrical warfare. Even if the regime collapses in the next few months, expect a continued guerrilla offensive from the remnant of the Qods Force, as well as the wider Shi’a “resistance,” (al-Muqawama al-Islamia) led by Abu Dua and Moqtada al Sadr (remember him?).
This has been a long time coming. And it isn’t over. To quote Churchill, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.”