US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo(R) listens as US President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, DC, January 8, 2020. Eric BARADAT / AFP
Last weekend presented an unprecedented anxious moment for the world. Was the world headed inevitably for another world war? Many asked and waited anxiously as it became clear that everyone was close to yet another global catastrophe.
This was after the January 3, 2020, air strike ordered by President Donald Trump of the United States that claimed the life of Iran’s most decorated military General, Quasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a high-profile commander of Iraq- based Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Amid rising tension between the United States and Iran, the U.S. carried out a drone strike on a convoy near Baghdad International Airport, killing Soleimani of the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps, (IRGC) who is also the commander of the Quds Force and listed as a terrorist by the European Union (EU). Nine other persons on the convoy included the deputy chairman of Iraqi’s PMF, and the commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who was listed as a terrorist in Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
The assassination of Soleimani immediately triggered the fear of a possible world war as the U.S. and Iran have been spatting in the volatile Middle East over supremacy and control for nearly three decades. The U.S. had defended its action maintaining that it was an attempt to disrupt a terror threat.
As tens of thousands of Iranians and Iraqis mourned the death of their war heroes, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Iranian Republic vowed to hit back hard at U.S. targets to avenge the deaths. Iran made good its threat on Tuesday night when it responded with force, launching more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi bases that hold U.S. troops.
An unconfirmed battle assessment evaluation of the Iranian strike on Wednesday morning claimed a number of U.S. warplanes were on fire after the IRGC missile attack on America’s Ain Assad military base in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. Speaking to Iranian News Agency, IRNA, an unnamed source said that the U.S. planes got fired after the base was targeted by the IRGC ballistic missiles.
“Primary reports had it that after the IRGC missile attacks on the U.S. base, some of the American planes were on fire”, said the source. The IRGC said in a statement that it would release more details about the strike.
After the assassination of Soleimani by the U.S. forces in Iraq on Friday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said “harsh and severe revenge is awaiting the criminals”. The missile attack took place before the body of the martyred general was laid to rest in his hometown .
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps said the attacks were “hard revenge” for the death of Soleimani. The Iranians defended their action and argued that killing a terrorist as a security matter is one thing but killing another country’s general as part of a policy agenda is something else entirely. This is how close the world is to a world war which some have already dubbed “world war III”
The Iraqi military said 22 ballistic missiles were fired at two bases used by U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, as Iran claimed responsibility and dozens of casualties in a dramatic development that drew various interests in the region close to a war with the potential of engulfing the world. The Pentagon confirmed the Wednesday early morning attacks on the al-Asad and Erbil facilities saying they were still evaluating the damage and their response.
President Donald Trump however downplayed the reports of the wounded and dead, saying “assessment of casualties and damage taking place now. So far, so good!”
Iranian state television, however, claimed 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and U.S. helicopters and military equipment damaged, but offered no evidence of how it obtained that information.
Iraq’s military-run media agency, the Security Cell, said there were no Iraqis injured in the attack, adding that 17 missiles landed on al-Asad base in the western province of Anbar and five on Erbil city, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
The missile barrages came hours after tens of thousands of Iranians turned out to mourn the slain Iranian military commander Soleimani and more than 50 mourners who died in a stampede.
The Guardian learnt that top officials who briefed Trump were surprised that he decided to strike Soleimani, who was visiting Iraq, because it was the most severe option presented to him. The White House had stood firm in defence of the strike saying, “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 . He was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
The statement also noted what it described as previous deadly actions by Soleimani and his Quds force, which it said was “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Since those first public announcements about the strike, officials have refused to provide evidence of the imminent attack and instead have argued that Soleimani’s previous actions meant he would continue to act the same way and that eliminating him was part of a larger strategy.
Many world leaders including U.S. allies in the region were taken aback by the killing of Soleimani as they had no prior knowledge of the strike. This is believed to be the reason there was apprehension the action could degenerate into a global conflict. The Pentagon statement claiming the strike on the second most senior Iranian general was to deter “future Iranian attack plans” has also not resonated with the U.S. House of Representatives who are demanding credible evidence of the threat level from the Trump administration.
Hostilities broke out between the U.S. and Iran after the Americans dumped the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — a deal signed in 2015 between the U.S., Iran, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China which aimed to prevent Tehran developing nuclear weapons. The European Union ( EU), coordinator for the deal, Josep Borrell said Wednesday that the situation in the Middle East is “extremely worrying” confirming global anxiety that there may still be further hostilities should the U.S. keep to its promise to return any aggression by Iran on its troops and facilities.
As world leaders express concern over the military squabble, Borrell maintained that the current situation puts at risk the efforts of the past years and also has implications for the important work of the anti-Daesh coalition.
The U.K.’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab condemned Iran’s attacks on Iraqi military bases that were hosting U.K., U.S. and other coalition forces. “We urge Iran not to repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks, and instead to pursue urgent de-escalation,” Raab said in a statement.
He added that “a war in the Middle East would only benefit Daesh and other terrorist groups.”
Meanwhile in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Iranian President Rouhani before the attacks took place. In a statement, Macron said he expressed his “deep concern” over recent events and called on Iran to refrain from any measures that would further aggravate the tensions.
In China, the foreign ministry has also called on the parties involved to refrain from aggressive action and warned that an escalation of tensions is in no-one’s interest.
On its part, Germany decided to withdraw most of its troops out of Iraq on Tuesday, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Spain has also decided to pull out some of its troops from Iraq, the Spanish government said Wednesday.
Political leaders are urging Iran and the United States to refrain from any steps that would further aggravate ongoing tensions in the Middle East.
The PMF also known as the People’s Mobilization Committee, PMC and the Popular Mobilization Units, PMU is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias that are mostly Shia Muslim groups, but also include Sunni Muslim, Christian and Yazidi groups.
The death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis sent shock waves through Iraq. As the deputy commander of a loose coalition of militias, al-Muhandis oversaw a disparate military force that arose to help Iraq defeat the Islamic State but soon metamorphosed into a power unto itself with its members operating with significant independence, often at the behest of Iran. al-Muhandis was also a founder of the individual militia that was attacked by American airstrikes last Sunday that led to the assault on the American Embassy in Baghdad during the week.
Even in death, the Iraqi warlord is still considered a hero by many Iraqis for his ability to corral the country’s bickering militias into an effective fighting force against the Islamic State. In the vacuum that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall, he created new networks to undermine the American occupation. And when Iran sought to embed itself in Iraqi life, it was al-Muhandis, fluent in Persian and close to General Soleimani, who served as its reliable right hand.
It is believed al-Muhandis advised the general, and both men preferred to operate from the shadows, even as their exploits earned them fame at home and enemies in the West. Born Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, he was better known by his nom de guerre and gained his greatest prominence leading the mostly Shiite militias that formed to fight the Islamic State in 2014. al-Muhandis kept close ties with Iran throughout his life, including during the campaign that made him most popular at home: As Iraqi militias fought against the Islamic State, or ISIS, he publicly thanked Iran and General Soleimani for their support.
His ties to Iran were well known. In 2009, he was identified as an adviser to General Soleimani by the United States Treasury Department, and accused of helping to smuggle rockets, sniper rifles and other weapons from Iran to Iraq. American officials said he had also provided “logistical support for attacks” against coalition forces in Iraq and sent militia fighters to train in Iran.
Long before the American invasion of Iraq, he was accused of playing a role in the bombings of the French and American Embassies in Kuwait in 1983, and later attempt to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait in 2007. A Kuwaiti court sentenced him to death in absentia.
Al-Muhandis fled Iraq with the rise of Saddam Hussein, who tried to crush the Islamic Dawa party, a Shiite group of which the future militia leader was a member.
Sources disclosed al-Muhandis held a life- long ambition to turn Iraq into a Shiite state similar to Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. And he spent years in exile there, cultivating close ties with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and becoming fluent in Persian and kept a home in Tehran.
He and many other Shiite leaders returned to Iraq in the aftermath of the American invasion in 2003, and al-Muhandis briefly served in Iraq’s Parliament before dropping out of public view. He also helped found Kataib Hezbollah, a militia that targeted the United States during the Iraq war and was accused of training and equipping a network of anti-American groups. Kataib Hezbollah has continued to oppose the United States, and American officials blamed it for a rocket attack that killed an American contractor last week.
After the attack, the United States launched airstrikes on five Kataib Hezbollah locations, killing at least 24 militia members. In response, pro-Iranian demonstrators, drawn largely from militias, swarmed the American Embassy compound in Baghdad, setting some outbuildings on fire. Enraged by the torching of parts of its facility, President Trump ordered the strike on Soleimani and al-Muhandis as their convoy left the Iraqi International Airport.
Diplomatic sources in Abuja informed The Guardian that American warnings to the Iraqi government about al-Muhandis dated as far back as 2014, that year, Ryan Crocker, a former US Ambassador to Iraq said that American officials informed the Iraqi Prime Minister at the time “that if Muhandis wanted to stay healthy he needed to stay in Iran.”
In Nigeria, some members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, IMN, who bears allegiance to the Iranian Shia Islamic ideology reacted to the U.S. and Iranian face-off by burning the American flag in Abuja and staging protests in parts of the North.
A security strategist, David Okoror told The Guardian, that events in Muslim countries usually reverberate in Nigeria. He said government needs to be proactive by putting in place security measures to curtail any escalation.
Okoror observed that the strike by Iran on American military bases in Iraq will definitely draw U.S. reaction and if this happens, the large Shiite followership in Nigeria could cause more public discomfort requiring government to be alive to the imminent threats.
For now, there is some respite for the world as the US and Iran said they do not want a war. But for how long this would be remains a delicate conjecture. The feeling that it is not all over yet remains strong as the Americans count their loses from the Iranian strike.
By Igho Akeregha, Abuja