Daily: January 9, 2020

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Photo: Qassem Soleimani, source: NYPOST



Jayakartapos,  A key Iranian response to the U.S. strike that killed Qods Force Commander Qasem Soleimani will be to try to permanently oust the 6,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq.

Iran has already put to use a combination of its military and political levers in Iraq to achieve its goal of expelling American troops.

A U.S. departure from Iraq would consolidate Iran’s grip on Iraq, while also potentially facilitating the resurgence of the so-called Islamic State.

Key Iraqi leaders are trying to minimize the damage to U.S.-Iraq relations and preserve at least some U.S. training programs for Iraqi anti-ISIS forces.

Iran has threatened a significant response to the January 2 U.S. drone strike that killed the top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official responsible for Iran’s projection of power in the region – IRGC-Qods Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani. When and how Iran will respond remains unclear.

Still, it is inevitable that a central axis of Iran’s counterattack will consist of an attempt to drive American forces out of Iraq entirely.

The Trump administration justified its action, which took place as Soleimani’s convoy was exiting Baghdad International Airport because the IRGC-QF leader was in the process of orchestrating Iranian proxies to conduct further attacks on American military personnel and diplomats in Iraq. About 6,000 troops are in Iraq under a bilateral agreement restored in 2014 to help beleaguered Iraqi forces beat back a large-scale offensive by the Sunni jihadist Islamic State organization. Iran-backed attacks in Iraq in December 2019 consisted of rocket attacks on bases where U.S. troops are co-located with Iraqi forces and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to protest a U.S. strike on the Iran-supported Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, whose commander was also killed in the strike on Soleimani’s convoy.

Since the U.S.-led military overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraq has sought to maintain a balance between Iran and the United States. The two countries have been at odds since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran but found some common ground in 2014 to defeat their mutual enemy, the Islamic State. In reversing ISIS territorial gains in Iraq, the United States even tacitly backed some Shia militia forces that have ties to Iran. With ISIS weakened in Iraq by 2017, the Trump administration shifted toward a policy of maximum pressure on Iran in 2018 and in doing so, made Iraq a U.S.-Iran battleground for influence, with Tehran using its militia proxies and its political allies in Baghdad to push back against Washington’s anti-Iran campaign.

In the days since the killing of Soleimani, the pro-Iran political forces inside Iraq appear to be prevailing, backed by – or intimidated by – the commanders of Iran-supported militias. On January 5, Iraq’s Council of Representatives passed a resolution directing the Iraqi government to request that U.S. forces leave Iraq. Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who had been close to both U.S. and Iranian officials but resigned over unrest in November, condemned the U.S. strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and has said he will support the CoR move to expel American forces. Just before the CoR vote, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition conducting ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ announced it would suspend anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and concentrate on protecting coalition forces from continued rocket attacks by Iran-backed Shia militia groups. Moreover, Kata’ib Hezbollah warned Iraqi Security Forces to remove themselves from the immediate perimeter of Iraqi bases where U.S.-led forces are co-located – a harbinger of potentially further severe attacks on U.S. forces. Although acting Prime Minster Abdul Mahdi has sided with the pro-Iranian elements since the Soleimani killing, he has also proposed a plan to limit U.S. operations in Iraq rather than expel U.S. forces outright. He and other Iraqi leaders seek, at the very least, to preserve the U.S. training program for Iraq’s elite and effective Counter-Terrorism Service. Even if he succeeds in maintaining at least some modicum of a military relationship with the United States, it is clear that U.S. operations against ISIS will be significantly hampered, potentially facilitating the resurgence of the group as a serious threat to Iraq’s government and people.

Whereas a renewed ISIS threat inside Iraq would not benefit Tehran, a U.S. departure from Iraq would consolidate Iran’s control over a secure corridor of territory from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, a strategic land bridge. A pro-Iranian Iraq would give Tehran unfettered access to numerous facilities and locations from which its Shia militia proxies in Iraq could help Iran project power into eastern Syria, Saudi Arabia, and5 the Gulf states. Iran has already provided its Iraqi allies with short-range ballistic missiles for this purpose, and at least one attack on a Saudi oil pipeline in mid-2019 was launched from Iraq. Iran’s leaders are willing to risk an ISIS resurgence in service of the broader objectives of avenging Soleimani’s death and demonstrating that the Trump administration’s decision to strike him was a major strategic miscalculation (TSC)

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Photo: Ilustration, source: CNN





Jayakartapos, Less than 24 hours after the United States killed IRGC-QF General Qassem Soleimani, the United States Department of State designated Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
AAH has a long history of targeting U.S. interests and maintains strong links to Iran and a number of other Iranian proxies.

By virtue of these designations, the group and its leaders are now subject to a wide-range of U.S. countermeasures.

In the latest salvo of this spiraling conflict, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases where American and Iraqi troops are stationed.

On January 3, 2020, shortly after the targeted killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force’s (IRGC-QF) top official, Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. Department of State designated Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The AAH designation received little national attention as a consequence of Soleimani’s death, but the FTO designation is a significant sanction. AAH joins Lebanese Hezbollah (LH), designated in 1997, and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), designated in 2009, as Iranian proxy groups listed as FTOs. In 2019, the State Department took the unprecedented step of labeling the IRGC (and IRGC-QF as a sub-body), a state entity, as an FTO. In addition to the AAH FTO designation, the State Department designated Qays and Laith al-Khazali, senior AAH leaders, pursuant to Executive Order 13224. One month prior, the Khazalis were designated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury pursuant to E.O. 13818 for their involvement in human right abuses in Iraq, to include approving the using of lethal force to quell Iraqi protests.

AAH has a long history of terrorism. AAH was originally part of the Iran-supported Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) until it split and became an independent organization in 2006. AAH’s height of terror attacks began shortly thereafter when the group specialized in guerrilla tactics, including a campaign of explosively formed penetrator (EFP) attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces. According to the U.S. Department of State, the group took responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. and coalition forces. Qays and his brother Laith al-Khazali were held in connection to the January 2007 attack which killed five U.S. soldiers in Karbala, Iraq. Laith was detained for his role in the attack but was later released in 2009 in an apparent effort to support reconciliation efforts between AAH and the Iraqi government. In a separate instance, Qays, too, was captured by Coalition forces but released in 2010. AAH is sponsored by the Iranian government and maintains close ties with other Iranian proxies, such as LH and KH. Since reconciling with the Iraqi government, AAH has joined the political fold and, in fact, has held seats in Iraq’s parliament since 2018. Qais, AAH’s leader, holds a parliamentary seat. AAH has tried to enmesh itself within the Iraqi political system, not unlike Hezbollah’s approach in Lebanon where it retains significant sway in all aspects of Lebanese society. AAH has been politically active in uprooting the U.S. presence from Iraq, where the parliament recently voted to expel U.S. troops. AAH also played a role in the recent siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The AAH FTO designation has three primary legal repercussions. First, AAH is blocked from using the U.S. formal financial system. Second, anyone providing material support to the organization can be criminally prosecuted. Third, any member of AAH will be denied entry into the United States. While these are the tangible consequences, AAH’s and the Khazali brothers’ designations could make it easier for the U.S. to strike AAH. In the Pentagon’s official statement regarding the killing of Soleimani the first paragraph emphasized the IRGC-QF’s FTO status. Other senior level U.S. official statements noted the IRGC’s designation and that of Soleimani, who was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2007. Despite the AAH FTO designation, targeting the Khazalis may not be as straightforward as that of IRGC or KH personnel given AAH’s political party (and Khazali’s parliament membership) status in Iraq – where Washington hopes to be able to maintain some kind of troop presence. The U.S. designation is also certain to complicate the provision of security aid to the government of Iraq due to AAH’s prominent role within the Popular Mobilization Units.

Late in the evening on January 7, reports began circulating that Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles against bases in Iraq where Iraqi, U.S., and Coalition troops are stationed. The missiles were launched from Iranian soil at the al-Asad and Erbil bases in an operation squarely aimed at responding to the death of Soleimani. It remains unclear if casualties resulted and some observers suggested that the strikes by Tehran, which were claimed by the Revolutionary Guards, were aimed at assuaging a domestic audience eager for an Iranian response. This is likely just the opening salvo of Iran’s response, which will almost certainly include a subsequent wave of asymmetric attacks using a range of proxy actors and irregular and unconventional warfare tactics (TSC)