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Targeted Killing of Iranian General Puts U.S. at Crossroads in Middle East

Trump’s plans to reduce military footprint in the region now at risk after Soleimani strike

  (By Michael R. Gordon, Nancy A. Youssef and Vivian Salama for Wall Street Journal)
The U.S. drone strike that killed the Iranian Quds Force commander marks a pivot toward direct confrontation with Iran, further entangling the U.S. in the Middle East after years of trying to avoid a major conflict.
Since taking office, President Trump has made a priority of winding up the fight against Islamic State militants and reducing the American military footprint in the Middle East. The Trump administration was determined to roll back Iranian power and stop its nuclear program by tightening economic sanctions—not through military power.
With Islamic State seemingly routed in Iraq and Syria, and Tehran lashing out in the face of a deteriorating economy, the U.S. and Iran have entered a new phase as they vie to shape the ragged peace in an unsteady part of the world.
See-sawing tensions in recent months rose in the past few weeks, with Iranian-backed militias trying to harass U.S. forces by stepping up rocket attacks against multiple bases in Iraq. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in mid-December that should harm come to any American the U.S. would respond decisively.
On Dec. 27 the administration’s red line was finally crossed when a rocket attack carried out by the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia killed an American contractor at a base near Kirkuk, north of Baghdad.
That set in motion a spiral of violence that ultimately led to the targeting of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s overseas wing, and Iraqi paramilitary military leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes on a road leading from the Baghdad airport.
“Ever since the U.S. official was killed in indirect fire in Iraq, [President Trump] said enough is enough,” according to a senior White House official.
Before the U.S. strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, friction between the two countries was building.
We took action last night to stop a war,” President Trump said Friday. “We did not take action to start a war.”
In killing the Iranian commander, the Trump administration is gambling that it can weaken Iran’s regional influence, possibly forcing Tehran to negotiate. Such an outcome could further boost Mr. Trump as he faces an impeachment trial and gears up for re-election.
Critics said the killing of Gen. Soleimani is more likely to inflame tensions, generating reprisals from Iran and potentially miring the U.S. further in the region.
“The level of unpredictability going forward is very concerning to me,” said Rep. Andy Kim (D., N.J.), who was the Iraq director at the National Security Council under President Obama. He said the Obama administration considered killing Gen. Soleimani but never went through with it because of concerns about a backlash.
Defense officials said Gen. Soleimani was behind the dozen or so rocket attacks that showered Iraqi bases since October, including the strike that killed the American contractor, who was working as a linguist. The Iranian commander was involved in plotting future attacks on Americans in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, having recently visited those places as part of the planning, the officials said.
There was “clear, unambiguous intelligence indicating a significant campaign of violence against the United States in the days, weeks and months” ahead, Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday.
“These were attacks targeting American diplomats, American military personnel and facilities that house Americans,” a State Department official said.
After the death of the contractor, on Dec. 27, the U.S. responded with airstrikes against compounds of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group in Iraq and Syria that the group says killed 27 people. That weekend, President Trump also authorized the use of military force on Gen. Soleimani, U.S. officials said.
Gen. Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Mr. Pompeo discussed the strike with Mr. Trump, who was winding up a two-week holiday at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. Senior officials concluded that “there was a reasonable chance” the strike wouldn’t spark a war and would instead empower moderates in Iran, a White House official said.
The official said discussions on targeting Gen. Soleimani also “went through a legal review” to determine whether it qualified as self-defense.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, right, listen as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper delivers a statement on Iraq and Syria on Dec. 29 in Palm Beach, Fla.
Five days later, Gen. Soleimani flew to Baghdad, becoming what one defense official described as a “target of opportunity.” The airport road that Gen. Soleimani and Mr. Mohandes took has few exit ramps and is lined with high walls, making it an optimum location for a targeted killing.
As Gen. Solemiani started out on that road an unmanned aerial drone dropped ordnance on the convoy, the defense officials said.
Mr. Pompeo said the attack aimed to show resolve to deter Iran against further aggression and that “the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.” President Trump, in a tweet, said Iran has never won a war, nor lost a negotiation.
Getting Iran to refrain from reprisals is unlikely, experts say. “Nobody in the administration thinks that is going to happen,” said Kirsten Fontenrose of the Atlantic Council foreign-policy think tank, who left Mr. Trump’s NSC in November 2018.
After Gen. Soleimani’s death, Iran’s leaders named a replacement and vowed retaliation. “Soleimani was iconic,” tweeted Norman Roule, a former Central Intelligence Agency official on the Middle East. “He managed militias & terrorists. Neither will go away w his death. He will be replaced by others albeit w less experience & stature.”

Iran has a variety of options to strike back. The 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are part of an array of forces numbering 80,000 throughout the region at bases and at sea. U.S. officials said Friday that some 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division would be sent to Kuwait as early as this weekend.
The region’s oil shipping and infrastructure remain a vulnerability and have been the targets of earlier skirmishes. Iranian forces could seed the Persian Gulf with mines and fire missiles at U.S. bases, oil fields and desalinization plants in the Arabian peninsula.
If it is looking to respond quickly, Iran could use the militia forces it backs in Iraq and elsewhere to mount rocket strikes and other attacks against American troops. Mounting cyberattacks against American businesses and institutions, experts say, is also an option.
The U.S. and Iran have battled for influence across the region for decades. During the Iraq war, Iran undermined the U.S. by arming Shiite militias that attacked U.S. troops. Iran still holds much sway over Iraq’s politics, enjoying the allegiance of many political groups, including some now calling for a vote in parliament to expel U.S. forces.
During the Obama administration, Iran agreed with the U.S. and five world powers to curb its nuclear program. The Trump administration scrapped that accord in mid-2018, saying the pact wouldn’t ultimately prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and didn’t cover its missile programs or its assertive regional posture. Washington turned to sanctions and other measures to cripple Iran’s economy and cut off revenues from oil sales.
President Trump reinstates sanctions against Iran after announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018. PHOTO: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The rise of Islamic State gave Washington and Tehran a common enemy, especially after militants expanded control of territory and took the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014.
U.S. troops and Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Iran tolerated each other’s presence on the battlefield in Iraq. Though the U.S. didn’t coordinate with Iranian-backed militias, the two sides avoided clashes.
Once, Gen. Soleimani’s aircraft was parked on the same Iraqi airfield as the one used by Tony Thomas, the general, now retired, who headed the Joint Special Operations Command and later the U.S. Special Operations Command.
That uneasy and unofficial truce enabled the U.S. to shrink its military footprint in the Middle East as outlined in the Pentagon’s national defense strategy, published in 2018, which sought to redirect the U.S. military’s focus mainly to deterring a resurgent Russia and a potentially more powerful China.
Under then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the Pentagon reduced the number of military personnel in the Middle East, stopped the practice of constantly maintaining an aircraft carrier in the region and redeployed four Patriot antimissile batteries from Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain.
During the first two years of the Trump administration, U.S. officials discussed the possibility of targeting Gen. Soleimani, a former senior U.S. official said. He was difficult to locate since he left Iran only for brief periods, said the former official, so a decision to target him was never close.
With tensions rising with Tehran, U.S. Central Command commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. has argued for the need to augment forces.
As the U.S. ratcheted up economic pressure against Iran, Tehran lashed out, attaching mines to ships and shooting down a U.S. drone in June. The U.S. blamed Iran for missile and drone strikes against an oil facility in Saudi Arabia owned by state-controlled Saudi Arabian Oil Co. in September. Starting in May, Gen. McKenzie began assembling more forces, deploying the Patriots, a Thaad anti-ballistic missile defense system and ultimately restored the carrier’s presence there. Last month, the Pentagon began considering whether to send yet more forces—potentially as many as 14,000 additional troops, which could include sailors aboard ships. The promise of additional forces doesn’t guarantee that Iran won’t retaliate, Pentagon officials conceded. “They are going to respond. They have to,” said a defense official.



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