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Strike said to change rules of US-Iran battle

Analysts say Iraq could ‘pay price’ for US strike on Iranian commander

‘Heads will roll,’ says one expert regarding political repercussions of Soleimani’s killing in Iraq, which has become battlefield between Washington and Tehran

Iraqis walk in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on January 3, 2020. (AFP)
Iraqis walk in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on January 3, 2020. (AFP)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — The killings of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and a top Iraqi paramilitary chief in a US strike on Baghdad Friday threaten to drag Iraq into the abyss of regional conflict, analysts have warned.

The US strike on Baghdad international airport targeted a convoy carrying Soleimani and his top Baghdad-based adviser Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Iraq’s powerful Popular Mobilization Force (PMF).

The raid has confirmed the worst fears of many Iraqis: that their homeland will become the main battlefield in a looming conflict between Iran and the United States.

“Iran’s strongest cards are in Iraq, and I think that Iraq will pay the price for this,” said Fanar Haddad of Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have been rising for months, as Washington accused Tehran-backed factions of firing rockets on their troops across Iraq and on their embassy in Baghdad.

But they have soared over the past week.

On December 27, a rocket attack killed a US contractor working in northern Iraq, prompting retaliatory US strikes that killed 25 fighters from Kataeb Hezbollah, a hardline PMF faction.

Angry PMF supporters laid siege to the US embassy as Washington announced hundreds of new US troops were en route to the region.

The head of the Revolutionary Guard’s foreign wing, or Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, center, attends a meeting of a group of the Guard members with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, Iran, October 2, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Path to war?

But Washington delivered its most decisive blow yet early Friday with a volley of strikes near Baghdad international airport, leaving two cars torched on the access highway.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed Soleimani was killed in the strike, while the PMF announced Muhandis’s death.

With the two dead, the Quds Force — the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Guards Corps — has been left decapitated and the PMF has lost its de facto chief.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” for the raid, and the Islamic republic’s top security council was meeting to discuss options.

Analysts said the outbreak of a wider conflict was looking increasingly likely.

“If Iran does need to respond and make a performance out of this, the fear is that there will be something more than just… rockets at embassies,” said Haddad.

“It could set Iraq along the path of internal conflict, and that’s something Iran can very easily instigate,” he said.

This photo taken on December 31, 2019 shows Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces, attending the funeral procession of Hashed al-Shaabi fighters in Baghdad, who were killed on the weekend in US air strikes on a base in western Iraq near al-Qaim, on the border with Syria. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

The nature of the strike is unprecedented because of the seniority of those targeted, making its repercussions hard to picture, said Ramzy Mardini, a researcher at the US Institute of Peace.

“The problem with judging what happens next is a problem of imagination. Nobody thought this was in the realm of possibility,” he told AFP.

“It’s likely that all actors on all sides will be playing things by ear in the short term, which is a recipe for miscalculation,” said Mardini.

‘Heads will roll’

Friday’s strike shows that Iran could no longer use its allies in Iraq to carry out attacks against US interests “without risking an American conventional retaliation on Iran,” Mardini told AFP.

“Plausible deniability has gone out the window,” he said.

The US had expressed increasing frustration with the escalating rocket attacks on its 5,200 troops in Iraq and on its embassy in Baghdad over the past two months.

US forces led the 2003 invasion against then-dictator Saddam Hussein and Washington has worked closely with Iraqi officials and commanders since then.

But its influence has waned compared with that of Iran, which carefully crafted personal ties with Iraqi politicians and armed factions, even during Saddam’s reign.

Soleimani was the prime example, sweeping into Baghdad regularly to hold meeting with top Iraqi officials during times of turmoil.

Ranj Alaaldin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, said that would leave Iran with a range of questions for its Iraqi partners.

“How did the US know of Soleimani’s arrival in Baghdad? Who leaked the intel?” Alaaldin tweeted.

“Watch the Iraqi political space. Heads will roll.”

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