The recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani in Iraq is all over the news. Soleimani was Major General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a top military commander who was well known for his abilities. The ostensible reason given by most media pundits for his assasination by the US is that he presented a danger to US troops in Iraq. Of course, this presupposes that it is somehow natural for US troops to be involved in an occupation of Iraq in the first place.
In fact, the US has taken a significant step back in its occupation of Iraq over the last few years. They had a fairly compliant Iraqi parliament, and were being allowed to remain while “training” various military, police, civil service and civil society groups.
However, the climate has been changing. With the fall of Mosul in 2014, the People’s Mobilization Forces/Units (PMF or PMU) were called into existence by Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa calling for defence of Iraq against sectarian ISIS forces. This set into motion the creation of a military force which has since ballooned in size, now claiming over one hundred thousand troops. It has garnered training and support from a range of unlikely groups, including Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah, the force managed to be attractive not only to Shia, but also Sunni, and especially Yazidi, who were quite interested in joining a group which could secure them against a literal genocide at the hands of ISIS.
The success of the groups multi-creed constituency is a very surprising development. Though the composition is definitely weighted in one direction (Shia), the PMU now claims some thirty thousand Sunni troops. Some credit must go to Iran, and especially Soliemani, who acted as an important advisor, for pulling off this immensely difficult task in the midst of sectarian warfare.
However its growth and success in repelling ISIS in real combat situations has strengthened its character and size to the point where the balance of forces in Iraq begin to shift decisively. Parliament began making increasing noises about the need for Iraqi sovereignty and the US military apparatus began to believe their hold on Iraqi politics was slipping. This slippage then became acute as protests against the complicity with the Americans eventually boiled over into a direct occupation of the US embassy in Baghdad.
The recent murder of Soliemani must be seen in light of these events. Not only was Soliemani assassinated along with a senior figure in the PMU as well as the PMU head of protocol and several others, but numerous PMU leaders were targeted for kidnapping, at least one has been caught, and six others have been assassinated in a second strike.
The most likely motive of the attack was dual. It was to send a message to Iran not to challenge US dominance over the political regime in Iraq by supporting independent forces, and to decapitate the leadership of the PMU such that the US could re-apply pressure over the parliament to fall back into line.
While war with Iran is a possibility as the response to these actions could spin out of control, depending both on the response of Iran but also the interpretation of events by the US, the primary objective was likely to reassert US hegemony in Iraq, to allow them to retain Iraq as a compliant military base for further operations and force projects in the middle east and increase the scale of their occupation once again. Whether this strategy will work in favour of the US, or whether some increasing sovereignty for Iraq might still be on the cards, is a yet unanswered question.