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    Mourners gather in Baghdad for funeral procession

    January 04, 2020

    A huge crowd in Iraq's capital Baghdad is taking part in a funeral procession for the Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US airstrike on Thursday.Soleimani was the architect of Iran's Middle East operations and Iran vowed to take "severe revenge" for his death. The gathering in Baghdad on Saturday marked the beginning of days of mourning for Soleimani. His body is to be returned to Iran for a funeral and burial in his home town. The crowds in Baghdad were also there to mourn the death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who commanded the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah group and effectively led the Popular Mobilisation units - an umbrella of militias in Iraq dominated by groups aligned with Iran.v
    Mourners started gathering in Baghdad from the early hours, ahead of the start of the procession, waving Iraqi and militia flags and chanting "death to America". The procession snaked though the streets, some carrying portraits of Soleimani and some of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.Reports said the bodies of the Iranians would then be flown on Saturday evening to Iran, which has declared three days of mourning for the murdered general. His funeral is to be held on Tuesday in his hometown of Kerman in central Iran.Some Iraqis, conversely, celebrated in Baghdad's streets at the news of Soleimani's death. He was accused of orchestrating violent crackdowns on peaceful pro-democracy protests there in recent months.The priority for Iran's leaders now is to send a very strong message about how much Qasem Soleimani mattered.
    He mattered in terms of being the most important military official for Iran, the most important intelligence official, one of the most important political personalities. They now want to see massive funerals, massive processions through the streets of major Iranian cities. The aim is to solidify Qasem Soleimani's status as a martyr. It is clear from all of the signs that he already had cult hero status among his forces. They want that symbolism to live on, to make him as powerful in death as he was in life.
    Fresh airstrikes in Iraq
    Iraqi state television said on Friday there had been another air strike in the country, 24 hours after the killing of Soleimani. An Iraqi army source told the Reuters news agency that six people were killed in the new strike, which hit a convoy of Iraqi militia in the early hours of Saturday morning local time.

    A US military spokesman denied that the American-led coalition fighting in the region was responsible."FACT: The Coalition @CJTFOIR did NOT conduct airstrikes near Camp Taji (north of Baghdad) in recent days," said Colonel Myles Caggins III, in a post on Twitter.The United States said it had deployed an additional three-thousand troops to the Middle East to help respond to any backlash frm the strike.
    Speaking at a news conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the US president, Donald Trump said: "The United States military executed a flawless precision strike that killed the number one terrorist anywhere in the world, Qassem Soleimani."Mr Trump said Soleimani was "plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him".But Trump administration officials did not give any details about what planned attacks had prompted them to move quickly to kill Soleimani. Both President Barack Obama and President George Bush rejected a strike on the general as too risky.The US state department issued a warning in the wake of the strike, advising American citizens to leave Iraq immediately via any means possible.In a statement following Soleimani's death, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: "His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands."
    Simmering US-Iranian hostilities had escalating rapidly last week after the US conducted air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, which the blamed for an earlier rocket attack that killed a US civilian contractor. Pro-Iranian militia attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad in response.In a letter to the UN Security Council, responding to the strike on Soleimani, Iranian ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said that Iran reserved the right to self-defence under international law. Analysts said Iran could deploy cyber-attacks against the US, or attempt to strike US military targets or interests in the Middle East.
    Iran supports a variety of Shia militia groups in neighbouring Iraq. Soleimani had just arrived at Baghdad airport and was travelling in a convoy alongside officials from such militia when their cars were hit by several US missiles.Al-Muhandis, the Iraqi militia leader who was also killed in the strike, commanded the Kataib Hezbollah group - also backed by Iran.Iraq now finds itself in a difficult position as an ally both of Iran and of the US. Thousands of US troops remain in the country to assist in the broader struggle against the Islamic State (IS) group. But the Iraqi government insists that the US has acted beyond the terms of this agreement.
    Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi labelled the missile strike as a "brazen violation of Iraq's sovereignty and a blatant attack on the nation's dignity". Iraq's parliament announced that it would hold an emergency meeting on Sunday. The US State Department warned Americans in Iraq to leave "immediately".
    Who was Qasem Soleimani? The 62-year-old was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran, behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reported directly to the ayatollah, and Soleimani was hailed as a heroic national figure. He was widely considered an architect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's war against rebels in Syria, the rise of pro-Iranian paramilitaries in Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State group, and many battles beyond.Charismatic and often elusive, the silver-haired commander was revered by some, loathed by others, and a source of myths and social media memes. He had emerged in recent years from a lifetime in the shadows directing covert operations to achieve fame and popularity in Iran, becoming the subject of documentaries, news reports and even pop songs.Under his 21-year leadership of the Quds Force, Iran bolstered Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militant groups in Lebanon; expanded its military presence in Iraq and Syria; and orchestrated Syria's offensive against rebel groups in that country's long civil war.
    Does Trump have a strategy?
    US President Donald Trump's decision to authorise a drone strike that killed Iran's most powerful military commander has seen tensions between the two nations escalate. What's the strategy here, and what might happen next? Mr Trump has long promised to take American troops out of the Middle East.But under his presidency, US relations with Iran have become more tense as he has ramped up sanctions and pulled out of a nuclear deal he viewed as flawed. Here's what US foreign policy experts believe may be behind the decision to kill Qasem Soleimani and what it means for US-Iran relations.
    PJ Crowley is a former US Assistant Secretary of State and author of Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States.We had the attack by the Iranian-backed militia and the response against its compounds in Iraq and Syria.The Trump administration was surprised by the magnitude of the attack on the embassy in Baghdad, viewed it as an escalation and believed that Soleimani was behind it. Presented with a target of opportunity, the president authorised the strike.Donald Trump is not a grand strategist. He lives in the moment and acts by instinct. I would be surprised if he thought through the after-effects.He was presented with the opportunity to take out a "bad hombre" that Obama hadn't. That was probably all he needed to hear.
    Iran has promised to respond and has lots of proxies that will look for targets of opportunity across the region. They understand enough about American politics to know that the key to Trump's re-election campaign is the US economy. If they can disrupt it, they will.In theory, the Trump endgame is forcing Iran back to the bargaining table for a "better deal" that takes into account not just Iran's nuclear ambitions, but its missile program and regional behaviour as well. It's implausible to see how this moves us closer to negotiations. Secretary of State Pompeo is dreaming when he says we are going to be widely applauded across the region.

    In Jerusalem and Riyadh yes, but the rest of the region is holding its breath.

    What about his promises to leave the Middle East?

    The president has never resolved the inherent contradiction within his Iran policy. He wants to exert maximum pressure while attempting to extract the United States from the region.

    While the president has consistently criticised Middle East wars with nothing to show for them, he has taken an action that at least in the short-term increases the risk that the existing political and economic conflict between Iran and the United States will escalate into a shooting war.

    'Sorry Iran', escalation fears and other US reaction
    Why the US had Soleimani in its sights
    Why kill Soleimani now and what happens next?
    'The stick and the carrot'
    William Tobey is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Non-proliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

    Why now?

    The timing is probably reflective of the fact that the maximum pressure campaign has been surprisingly effective.

    Tehran has chosen to escalate from the economic dimension to the military dimension, first with strikes against oil tankers and facilities and later against contractors.

    One could see this as an attempt to close off that channel for escalation, to tell Tehran: "Look, that's not going to work for you."

     

    Media captionFeeling the squeeze: Iran sanctions explained
    What's Trump's strategy?

    He's pursuing a tricky policy - to apply so much pressure that Iran feels that it has literally no choice but to return to the negotiating table and have a better deal, but not so much pressure that Iran thinks that there's no chance that the US will actually either adhere to a deal or even strike a deal that would be tolerable to them.

    In some ways, you see the stick - with the attack on the Soleimani convoy - but a carrot by the president saying: "Look I don't want to have war with Iran."

    He's trying to hold open the possibility that he doesn't see unlimited conflict as a constructive path.

    What next?

    Iran has seen staggering inflation rates and devaluation of their currency. Having fought a losing battle on the economic sanctions front, they decided to open a new front - Military strikes.

    I have a belief that nation states that feel like they're either aggrieved or attacked become more risk-tolerant.

    Image copyrightAFP
    Image caption
    Protests have also taken place outside Iran - here in Pakistan
    We've certainly seen a high risk-tolerance by the government in Tehran...I suspect their willingness to take further risks will increase.

    So the question is, which will end first - the maximum pressure campaign or Tehran's ability to resist it?

    Iran's response options for Soleimani's death
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    Luke Coffey is the Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, a US Army veteran and a former special adviser at the UK Ministry of Defence.

    Why now?

    I think every person has a limit.

    When you look at everything that Iran has been doing over the past year... I think it's clear that Iran was trying to provoke some sort of response from the US.

     

    Media captionThousands took to the streets of Kerman to mourn Gen Soleimani, a popular figure in Iran
    Trump, because he's not very military interventionist, was trying to avoid this situation. I suspect that he's been presented this option in the past and has rejected it, and then this week he decided enough is enough.

    He's continued to say he wants to have a negotiated settlement with Iran with no conditions for talks.

    Trump reached a point where he had to push back.

    Your questions: Will Soleimani killing spark war?
    A brief history of US-Iran relations
    What's Trump's strategy?

    The maximum pressure campaign is the strategy - the administration has been very consistent on this.

    Trump's shown he's trying to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table and I think he's trying to do so with the least amount of military kinetic action.

    I think Trump does see himself as this great negotiator and wanted to be the one to cut the deal, but was painted into this corner because Iran kept ratcheting their side of the pressure.

    Image copyrightREUTERS
    Image caption
    Protests are taking place in Iran - what will the wider repercussions be?
    You don't just wake up one morning and decide to kill Qasem Soleimani. There had to have been interagency planning in terms of tracking his whereabouts, finding windows of opportunity.

    We should not forget that Qasem Soleimani [was] a combatant inside a combat zone. No doubt that if the Iranians had the opportunity to take out someone similar in the US, they'd do so.

    This is part of the drumbeat of conflict that we're stuck with in the Middle East. I don't think this is going to spiral over to become World War Three.

    What next?

    Iran's definitely not going to come to the table now.

    That wasn't a reason not to do the strike - frankly, Soleimani had it coming to him and he got it.

    He has the blood of American soldiers on his hands and has terrorised huge chunks of the Middle East for more than a decade. Just because Trump wanted to have talks with Iran doesn't mean he shouldn't have taken out Soleimani.Media captionHundreds of US troops arrive in Kuwait - thousands more could be deployed to the regionI don't think he did it with politics in mind, I think he wanted to avoid this situation or he would've done it earlier. But politically speaking for him this makes him look like a strong leader among his supporters.What about his promises to leave the Middle East?Trump barely likes US troops in Germany, so the idea that he's going to put US troops in Iran in an election year is, I think, inconceivable.But he has to also show the US is only going to be pushed around so much.
    Why the US had him in its sights
    3 January 2020
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    Image copyrightREUTERS
    Image caption
    Soleimani - seen here in Iraq in 2015 - directed militia in Iraq who attacked US troops and later fought the Islamic State group
    Next to Iran's Supreme Leader, Qasem Soleimani was arguably the most powerful figure in the Islamic republic.

    As head of its military abroad known as the Quds Force, Soleimani was the mastermind behind the country's activities across in the Middle East, and its real foreign minister when it came to matters of war and peace.

    He was widely considered an architect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's war against rebels in Syria, the rise of pro-Iranian paramilitaries in Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State group, and many battles beyond.

    Charismatic and often elusive, the silver-haired commander was revered by some, loathed by others, and a source of myths and social media memes.

    Why kill Soleimani now and what happens next?
    US-Iran relations: A brief history
    Profile: Iran's Revolutionary Guards
    He had emerged in recent years from a lifetime in the shadows directing covert operations to achieve fame and popularity in Iran, becoming the subject of documentaries, news reports and even pop songs.

    As far back as 2013, former CIA officer John Maguire told The New Yorker that Soleimani was "the single most powerful operative in the Middle East".

    When his end came, it was violent and sudden. On 3 January the Pentagon announced that it had carried out a successful operation to kill him, at the direction of US President Donald Trump.

    Image copyrightEPA
    Image caption
    Soleimani (R) was close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
    The assassination followed a sharp escalation between the US, Iran and Iran-backed groups in Iraq following the death of a US military contractor in a missile attack on a US base in Iraq - for which the US held Iran responsible.

    The US responded with an air strike on the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah. Militia supporters then attacked the US embassy in Baghdad.

    Tensions between the US and Iran had been rising since the US pulled out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers to curb Iran's nuclear programme and prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. The US has also reimposed sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into freefall.

    Rise of militias
    Soleimani is believed to have come from a poor background and to have had very little formal education. But he had risen through the Revolutionary Guards - Iran's elite and most powerful force - and was reportedly close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.

    After becoming commander of the Quds Force in 1998, Soleimani attempted to extend Iran's influence in the Middle East by carrying out covert operations, providing arms to allies and developing networks of militias loyal to Iran.

    Over the course of his career he is believed to have aided Shia Muslim and Kurdish groups in Iraq fighting against former dictator Saddam Hussein as well as other groups in the region including the Shia militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamist organisation Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

    After the US invaded Iraq in 2003 he began directing militant groups to carry out attacks against US troops and bases, killing hundreds.

    He is also widely credited with finding a strategy for Bashar al-Assad to respond to the armed uprising against him that began in 2011. Iranian assistance along with Russian air support helped turn the tide against rebel forces and in the Syrian government's favour, allowing it to recapture key cities and towns.

    Soleimani himself was sometimes pictured at funerals of Iranians killed in Syria and Iraq, where Iran had deployed thousands of combatants and military advisers.

    He also travelled frequently across the region, regularly shuttling between Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, where Iranian influence has steadily grown. When he was killed he was travelling in a two-car convoy away from Baghdad airport with others including Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed.

    Soleimani was killed in an air strike near Baghdad's airport
    In April 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force as foreign terrorist organisations.

    The Trump administration has said the Quds Force provided funding, training, weapons and equipment to US-designated terrorist groups in the Middle East - including Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group based in Gaza.

    In a statement, the Pentagon said Soleimani had been "actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region".

    "General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more," it added

     

     

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