A woman holds a poster showing Gen. Qasem Soleimani, right, head of Iran's Quds force and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, during the procession to commemorate the first anniversary of their killing by a US drone

A year after the killing of a top Iranian general, US-Iran tensions remain high

Last January, the US killed Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. A year later, tensions between the countries are high once again. 

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A woman holds a poster showing Gen. Qasem Soleimani, right, head of Iran's Quds force and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, during the procession to commemorate the first anniversary of their killing by a US drone strike in Baghdad, in Najaf, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.

Credit:

Anmar Khalil/AP 

Protesters gathered in Iraq this past weekend to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

Soleimani was a towering figure — revered by some, despised by others.

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His death sent shock waves through the region and ratcheted up tensions between Iran and the US. Tensions between the countries are high once again. 

The US sent two B-52 bombers to the Middle East last week. US Central Command shared a video from the deployment on its Farsi language Twitter account. It also posted comments by Gen. Kenneth Frank McKenzie Jr., the head of CENTCOM, who said the US is ready to respond to any aggression.

CENTCOM didn’t respond to questions sent by The World about what type of aggression it is tracking.

The incoming US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on CNN on Sunday that he doesn’t think the US is safer after Soleimani’s assassination.

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Sullivan said Joe Biden’s administration plans to reengage Iran diplomatically, instead of relying on military force.

Meanwhile, the Iranians have been sending out their own warnings. Iran President Hassan Rouhani said that Donald Trump committed many crimes as US president. The biggest of all, he said, was to order the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.

“We won’t forget,” Rouhani said.

Who was Soleimani?

Soleimani was Iran’s top military commander. Experts say he was the supreme leader’s right-hand man. Soleimani headed Iran’s Quds force, an elite branch of the armed forces that operate outside of the country.

“He does not have the same personal relationship with the Arab militias. Add this to the fact that the Iranian state has a much reduced financial capabilities right now.”

Arash Azizi, author, "The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran's Global Ambitions"

“He does not have the same personal relationship with the Arab militias. Add this to the fact that the Iranian state has a much reduced financial capabilities right now,” said New York-based Arash Azizi, author of a new book called “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran's Global Ambitions.”

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Because of US sanctions, Iran is strapped for cash. It can’t finance militias in Iraq the way it used to. But Azizi thinks the international community should not write off the Quds force just yet.

“This was a very dangerous escalation. We are lucky it didn’t erupt into a war. It could have had. Has it reduced the capabilities of the Quds force? Sure it has. But the chimera of the Islamic Republic and of its external operations is still here to stay,” he added.

“This made him one of the most powerful figures in Iran, and an effective commander of a transnational army of tens of thousands of people who were involved in civil wars in Iraq, Syria and other places.”

Azizi writes that the general had humble beginnings. He was born in southeastern Iran to a family of farmers, then went on to get a job at the water department in Kerman Province. Later, he became obsessed with martial arts and took up karate, Azizi said. But it was the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s that propelled him to the top echelons of the Iranian military.

“He rose up to become the main commander of southeastern Iran, and then, he rose up the ranks in IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. He spent all his life in IRGC.”

Arash Azizi, author, "The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran's Global Ambitions"

“He rose up to become the main commander of southeastern Iran, and then, he rose up the ranks in IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. He spent all his life in IRGC,” he said.

Last January, the Trump administration touted Soleimani’s killing as a huge success. It said the general masterminded operations that led to the casualties in American forces in the region.

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But now, Soleimani has become a martyr in the eyes of the Iranian hard-liners. They have named streets after him, turned his home into a museum and there is even a rap track about him.

So, one year later, what did the US achieve by killing two top military leaders in Baghdad?

Caught in the middle

“We used to have Saddam Hussein’s portraits all over Baghdad. Now instead, we have portraits of martyred militiamen or living ones, and they are everywhere,” said Nabil Salih, a writer and photographer in Baghdad.

Salih was 11 years old when the US invaded his country. He said people like Soleimani are a product of the chaos that followed that traumatic event.

“Without this lethal state failure that we have been enduring its consequences since the invasion of 2003, none of this would have happened,” he said.

Salih went on to add that Iraqis have suffered decades of instability. The US has spent billions of dollars building up the Iraqi government and its security forces, he said, but that has not translated into a better life for Iraqis.

Salih described how a few weeks ago, as he was walking with his cousin in downtown Baghdad, they both agreed that the mood in the city feels like 2006 all over again. That was a violent time and it’s happening again, Salih said. People are being killed. Critics of the powerful disappear and turn up dead.

Iraq depends partly on Iran for power, and Iran recently threatened to cut supplies because Iraq has not paid its bills. Salih said he keeps candles nearby for when the power goes out.

Marsin Alshamary, a postdoctoral fellow with the Brookings Institution, said Iraqis are struggling to make ends meet.

“Right now, everyone is very preoccupied with the looming economic crisis. Recently, the central bank of Iraq devalued the Iraqi dinar, which means it’s really affecting people’s salaries and their purchasing power so this is their top priority and concern right now.”

Marsin Alshamary, Brookings Institution postdoctoral fellow

“Right now, everyone is very preoccupied with the looming economic crisis,” she said from Baghdad. “Recently, the central bank of Iraq devalued the Iraqi dinar, which means it’s really affecting people’s salaries and their purchasing power so this is their top priority and concern right now.”

Iraqis have been protesting these conditions for months. Thousands of people have poured on to the streets to demand reform. Security forces have cracked down, killing hundreds of them. And then, the pandemic hit.

Salih worries Iraqis won’t fare any better even after American troops are gone. Trump announced last fall that he wants to cut the number of US forces in Iraq to 2,500, down from 3,000.

“The war hasn’t ended here,” Salih said. “It doesn’t feel like it has ended because the helicopters are still roaring in the skies of Baghdad, and you still see security forces, you still see men with guns on the streets and the road signs that are riddled with bullet holes from 2003 are still the same. Still, the same chaos. Still, the same fear.”

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