On January 2, 2020, bad weather conditions meant that the Baghdad-bound Sham Wings Airlines flight 501 was delayed for nearly 3 hours.
The plane was carrying 156 passengers, eleven of whom were in business-class. This small group – five Iraqis, five Iranians and a Syrian – had boarded the plane at the last minute before take-off. Most of them had passports with their unofficial names, according to Al Arabiya sources.
Alongside five crewmembers and two navigators, the plane was carrying four security personnel and an engineer of “foreign nationality.”
At 12:33 a.m. on January 3, the Syrian airplane reached Baghdad International Airport.
The plane landed on the runway facing gate 23 of the airport’s Samarra terminal. There was no surveillance camera monitoring the area.
Informed sources told Al Arabiya that the airplane’s door was opened at 12:39 a.m. to allow passengers to disembark.
During this time, two vehicles had arrived near the airplane. They had entered the airport from Gate K1, designated for cargo. The cars had stopped opposite the airplane’s passenger ramp ladder.
Two men then climbed the ladder: Mohammed Reda, an official from the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) militias in Iraq, and Hassan al-Saadi, a militia general. The men’s job was to receive an important passenger: the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force and one of Iran’s most powerful men Qassem Soleimani, who was leaving the plane in a mask and hat to conceal his identity. The two men then accompanied him to the cars and left from Gate K1, heading to the eastern gate of the airport.
Exactly six minutes later, three “Hellfire” missiles struck the vehicles. All the men in the convoy were killed immediately. The drone-launched missiles had hit their target: Soleimani and his entourage were dead.
The targets of the strike included Iran’s man in Iraq Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes and Major General Hussein Jaafari, Soleimani’s adviser and body guard. Another person killed was the Syrian man who had accompanied Soleimani in business-class. Government investigations revealed that the man, who was traveling on an unofficial name, had organized the journey back from Beirut, where Soleimani had met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon.
Seven minutes after the attack, the drones which launched the missiles were out of Baghdad International Airport. Three US military jets replaced then entered Baghdad International Airport. The airport’s control tower asked them to leave the airspace because they were armed. Two of the planes complied with the request.
The air strike revealed that Washington had been monitoring Soleimani’s movements for several months through various means. Soleimani had frequently traveled between Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon with absolute freedom during the past year without taking any high-security precautions as he had done in previous years.
“I think the US government had some specific RoEs (Rules of Engagement) when they engaged and I don’t think they would have made that strike unless that was within the Rules of Engagement,” Mark T. Kimmitt, former US Director for Operations in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, told Al Arabiya.