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Early on Friday morning, the US carried out an air strike on Baghdad airport which killed General Soleimani, along with members of local militia.

Who was General Soleimani, why is he so important, and what reasoning has the US given for carrying out this strike?

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Who was Soleimani?

Major General Qasem Soleimani was the leader of the Iran Revolutionary Quds Force, the unit responsible for unconventional warfare, [...] intelligence activities, and [...] extraterritorial operations. He was also, by some estimates, the second most powerful person in Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

"He was more important than the president, spoke to all factions in Iran, had a direct line to the supreme leader and was in charge of Iran’s regional policy," said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Century Foundation think tank. "It doesn’t get more important and influential than that."

He is also considered by many to be the the most important figure in building Iran's influence across the Middle East, supporting groups from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthi rebels in Yemen: it was largely his actions which led to Iran supporting Bashir al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. He is perhaps most notable for his work in Iraq, where he has aggressively supported pro-Iran Shia militias.

It is worth noting that, in some ways, he was as much a diplomat as a general in the conventional sense.

It was his ability to build relationships that made him so effective, said Esfandiary. “He built them with everyone, inside and outside Iran, inside and outside government,” she said.

Tom Fletcher added on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

"[Qassem Soleimani] was a much more powerful figure than Osama bin Laden or Baghdadi, where at the moment of their own deaths, their power was in decline. His was growing as it has been really since the US invasion of Iraq. It is hard to overstate the potential impact of this moment."

Why was he targeted?

There have recently been a series of tit-for-tat moves against one another from the USA and Iran in their ongoing proxy war in Iraq.

" ... an American contractor had been killed in a rocket attack on Friday, triggering retaliatory air strikes against Iranian-supported militia camps, which in turn led to the storming of the US embassy compound by pro-Iran militiamen, in which no one appears to have been hurt."

This is a clear escalation in this series of attacks, since it is direct US military action against Iran. Donald Trump made this attack "without the sombre presidential address to explain his actions to the nation as is customary at such pivotal junctures in the country’s history, merely tweeting out a US flag and leaving it to the Pentagon to make the announcement," so it is difficult to know exactly what his intent was in escalating this conflict. That said, Trump's record with Iran has never implied that he has been working toward closer cooperation, most notably in his leaving the 2015 Nuclear Deal. The statement from the Pentagon was as follows:

"General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world."

The USA officially considers the Quds Force a terrorist organisation, so they will likely argue that all they have done is kill a dangerous terrorist. This is what the official statement seems to imply.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, repeatedly referred to the attack on twitter as a "defensive action" in response to "imminent threats to American lives".

More conspiracy-minded people may note that there is an election coming up and Trump has previously implied that he thinks wars can boost presidents' reelection chances.

It appears that Pentagon officials were shocked by this course of action. According to the New York Times:

"They didn’t think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials. By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned."

Ultimately, what seems most likely is that the USA saw a chance to strike back hard against recent Iranian actions and took it, with the escalation being a continuation of current US foreign policy in this area. That said, this is a clear escalation, to an extent that surprised even the Pentagon.

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    So is this an act or declaration of war? If Iran responded by killing a US General is this OK? Is there a specific tit-for-tat issue being retaliated for by the US? Or is the US executing foreign military officers now just emphatic diplomacy? – Jontia Jan 3 at 9:06
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    It is certainly not a legal declaration of war - that would require congressional approval. As to whether it functions as a declaration of war for practical purposes? Well that rather depends on how Iran reacts, and how the USA reacts to that et cetera. It is certainly a clear heating up of the cold war between Iran and the US, but exactly what that will look like is anybody's guess. The specific issue they're retaliating against is the storming of the US embassy, but Friday's rocket attack set off this particular chain. – CoedRhyfelwr Jan 3 at 9:12
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    @o.m. Well Iran I would assume. Seeing as he is a military official. That the organisation he heads has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the US isn't really going to cut much ice with Iran after all. Unless it's ok for them to pick a branch of the US military, label it a terrorist organisation and start killing US generals? – Jontia Jan 3 at 13:15
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    I mean it's arguably an act of war against both - the strike took place in Iraqi territory and Iraqi citizens were also killed in the strike. That said it was clearly intended to be an attack on Iran primarily. – CoedRhyfelwr Jan 3 at 13:20
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    @Jontia A few months ago Iran did declare CENTCOM to be a terrorist organization. Whether or not they try to (or could) kill an American general is anyone's guess: reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-rouhani/… – pip install Monica Jan 3 at 15:29
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According to the BBC:

The 62-year old [general] spearheaded Iranian military operations in the Middle East as head of Iran's elite Quds Force. [...] Under his leadership, Iran had bolstered Hezbollah in Lebanon and other pro-Iranian militant groups, expanded Iran's military presence in Iraq and Syria and orchestrated Syria's offensive against rebel groups in the country's long civil war. [...]

Gen Soleimani was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran behind the Ayatollah Khamenei. His Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, reported directly to the Ayatollah and he was hailed as a heroic national figure.

As you might expect, Iran (through the voice of Khamenei himself) has pledged to revenge his death...

As for the US (official) statements why he was killed... the full Pentagon statement was fairly brief:

At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.

General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week.

This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.

Some statements before Soleimani's killing have probably predicted an US action like this, in hindsight:

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Thursday announced that "the game has changed" for how President Donald Trump's administration deals with Iran [...]

"There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks," Esper told Politico. "If we get word of attacks, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives. The game has changed."

A CRS document notes earlier statements by Trump:

President Trump said in a June 24 interview that he believes he has the authority to direct strikes against Iran, and said, “I do like keeping them [Congress] abreast, but I don’t have to do it, legally.” On June 25, he tweeted that “any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.”

As Republicans have fairly uniformly supported Trump in this action, we can quote one (or two) of them as summarizing the issue (in what I'd call Trumpian style):

Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said in a news release that "General Soleimani is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans" and "the President made the brave and right call, and Americans should be proud of our service members who got the job done."

His comments were echoed by Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who said in a statement that Soleimani "masterminded Iran's reign of terror for decades, including the deaths of hundreds of Americans." "Tonight, he got what he richly deserved, and all those American soldiers who died by his hand also got what they deserved: justice," Cotton said. "America is safer now after Soleimani's demise."

(It seems that, in contrast, Democrats have generally disapproved of the strike, calling it "reckless" and so forth.)


Trump himself has now commented on the purpose of the US action. The statement is a bit long, so here are some excerpts:

Last night, at my direction, the United States military successfully executed a flawless precision strike that killed the number-one terrorist anywhere in the world, Qasem Soleimani.

Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him. [...]

For years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its ruthless Quds Force — under Soleimani’s leadership — has targeted, injured, and murdered hundreds of American civilians and servicemen.

The recent attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq, including rocket strikes that killed an American and injured four American servicemen very badly, as well as a violent assault on our embassy in Baghdad, were carried out at the direction of Soleimani. [...]

Soleimani has been perpetrating acts of terror to destabilize the Middle East for the last 20 years. What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved. [...]

We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

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    It's scary how symmetrical this whole situation is. You could replace Iran with the US (and vice versa) in many sentences and they would still sound plausible. Let's hope the situation doesn't escalate any further. – Eric Duminil Jan 3 at 19:17
  • Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man. - Friedrich Nietzsche @EricDuminil - Hope is another way of saying "I pass my turn and wait to see what happens". In an Era where everyone has a voice and it is often used wrongly, staying silent is almost not a choice. People should engage in healthy debate so the opinions may gain momentum and reach the ears it should reach. – Mindwin Jan 6 at 17:08
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    @Mindwin: What do you propose, exactly? – Eric Duminil Jan 7 at 9:10
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    @EricDuminil My personal opinion: people have a great boon in this age: everyone can have a voice online. However, said voice is usually wasted on pointless bickering and prejudice. Responsible, sensible online activism might be the answer. Nietzsche wasn't condemning the feeling called hope itself. He was condemning the reliance on hope as a source of providence, which it isn't. One should take action toward the best result and not just stay idle and just hope. I do not disagree with your point of view. This is a warning to the reader than to the fellow stack poster. – Mindwin Jan 7 at 12:23
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While both answers are pretty good, I would like to add couple of points to "Who was Gen. Soleimani":

  • Soleimani was the key personnel orchestrating the besieging and massacre in Aleppo (2014-2016) with Hezbolla and Assad's backing (funny how even Assad had secondary role to Soleimani there).
  • Soleimani didn't fight against ISIS. Actually his actions provided ISIS propaganda pretty much the same way Trump's actions have done to Iran's now.
  • Soleimani was a polarizing figure not even in Iraq, but even in Iran (as many would have seen the videos of people celebrating his death even in Iran) as he was a pillar of (Khomeini's) totalitarian regime and despised by moderates.

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