Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who were both killed in a US bombing in Baghdad on Friday morning, were considered the real power in Iraq, so their deaths change everything.
In Iraq, the US strikes offer a great opportunity for Iraqis to push back against Iranian influence, and in the conflict with Iran, their killing has sown fear about what President Donald Trump might do next.
Soleimani, the general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force who stood next to the Supreme Leader, and his Iraqi commander al-Mohandes – both designated terrorists by the US – died in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport.
In Iraq, Soleimani was so brazen that he walked around in broad daylight taking selfies. The invisible general who also masterminded proxy Iranian militias in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, was out of the shadows, taking photos and claiming victory over ISIS even when the US and Iraqi special forces that did all the heavy lifting.
Soleimani was so comfortable in Iraq that he landed at Baghdad Airport from a trip to Lebanon, went to baggage claim, met with militia protocol and the second most feared man in Iraq, al-Mohandes.
Bush and Obama had both baulked at the idea of striking Soleimani, but Trump pulled the trigger after the shocking New Year’s Eve attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, on the grounds that they were planning to kill more Americans. So what’s next?
Iranian Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani is Soleimani’s replacement, but he is not the leader or the strategist Soleimani was.
Ghaani will have to earn the respect and fear Soleimani had by killing Iraqis and Iranians – something the protesters on the streets of Tehran and Baghdad are ready to deal with, and something the US is ready to deal with.
This offers a great opportunity for Iraqis to push back against Iranian influence. The remaining Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force militia commanders in Iraq are not as confident as they were with Soleimani. Soleimani was their muscle and their credibility.
This is a chance for those in the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces, those that feared Soleimani and al-Mohandes, to push back and go after remaining militia leaders like Hadi al-Ameri and Qays Khazali, whose strength came from Soleimani and al-Mohandes. Their skills pale in comparison; Hadi in charisma and Khazali in leadership.
It is time to put pressure on the Iraqi government to arrest both of them and tell them there is no place in Iraq for militia leaders who kill innocent protesters.
We expect rocket and mortar attacks, and kidnappings to be planned across the region. With every provocation and every attack – whether successful or not – the targeting of the Iranian Supreme Leader’s top general means the US is not afraid to hurt the regime where it hurts the most – where our Iraqi allies told us to focus when they said “Kill them – not us”.
The Supreme Leader has to be thinking, if US President Donald Trump is willing to target my top general, the man who was responsible for spreading the revolution across the Islamic world – who or what is he willing to target next?