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The Soleimani assassination was short-sighted for US strategy and destabilizing for Iraq and the region

The United States’ assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was short-sighted, counter-strategic and will only further destabilize Iraq.

Washington claims that the strike was carried out to thwart an "imminent attack," with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit King of Jordan becomes first Arab leader to speak with President-elect Biden Central Asia is changing: the Biden administration should pay close attention MORE asserting that the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation with Iran. But the strike will do only the opposite, fueling tensions and likely ensuring retaliation. This will jeopardize U.S. policy and presence, further endanger civilians in Iraq (including those leading an ongoing pro-democracy movement) and bring further instability to the region.

Impact for the U.S.

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The American presence in Iraq was already challenged earlier in the week with the attack on the U.S. embassy by protesters, most from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia. The siege ended with militia supporters vowing to press for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq via the parliament.

While that move may have just ended in rhetoric a few days ago, the threat is now real, with relations between the U.S. and Iraq swiftly unravelling. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike on Soleimani, calling it a “flagrant breach of terms underwriting the presence of US forces in the country.” An emergency session of parliament was scheduled for Saturday, with deputy speaker Hassan al-Kaabi saying that decisions would be made to “put an end to the US presence in Iraq.”

The U.S. has approximately 5,200 troops in Iraq, where they train Iraqi forces and help fight Islamic State militias. Ousting those troops would diminish U.S. influence in both Iraq and neighboring Syria. Iraqi leadership is likely to be divided over the question of continued U.S. presence. But in a state where grievances against the U.S. have been salient since the 2003 invasion, the strike against Soleimani will only further fuel anti-U.S. sentiment. Meanwhile, the strike has put U.S. troops and personnel in Iraq in direct risk of retaliation.

Impact for Iraq

The strike will further de-stabilize Iraq at a pivotal moment, derailing the genuine pro-democracy movement that has sustained over the past three months. Some of the protests have demonstrated an anti-Iran sentiment, targeting the Iranian consulate and other official facilities to express anger at Tehran’s continued intervention in Iraq.

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Many of these activists denounced the pro-Iran crowds that stormed the U.S. embassy last week, distancing themselves from those protesters. Further, they accused authorities of employing a double standard in not confronting the Kataib Hezbollah protesters, whereas the pro-democracy activists have seen more than 460 killed and more than 25,000 wounded in violent crackdowns. Soleimani’s assassination will only further galvanize the pro-Iran base, overshadowing the democracy movement and pitting protesters against each other.

The assassination also risks reviving sectarian divisions in Iraq. In my conversations with Iraqi youth in 2018, there was overwhelming support to move beyond sectarian divides to embrace a unified Iraqi identity. From the U.S. invasion to the civil war to the fight against Islamic State, many young Iraqis have only known a country besieged by war and division. If the U.S. and Iran continue to use Iraq as a battleground, there will be a backslide to sectarianism with another generation of Iraqi civilians caught in the middle. 

Impact for the broader Middle East

Given Iran’s influence with armed groups across the Middle East, Iran has the ability to retaliate through various means and channels, leaving U.S. allies across the region bracing for potential attacks. The continued escalation also increases uncertainty and instability in a region still roiling from the Syrian civil war and other ongoing conflicts.

The spiraling tensions also risk further exacerbating the so-called Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East; though often overstated, the fact that many associate Soleimani with building a “Shiite axis” across the Middle East will only add to perceived sectarian divisions.

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No hero, but now a martyr

While valorized in Iran, Soleimani was a contentious figure across the Middle East. The Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is responsible for operations beyond the state’s borders. As the head of the Quds force, Soleimani was involved in bolstering allies and coordinating attacks carried out in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, destabilizing those states while seeking to extend Tehran’s influence.

But Soleimani was also a pragmatist, cooperating with the U.S. at critical moments, such as during the initial fight against the Taliban following 9/11, the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 and, more recently, in the fight against the Islamic State.

Soleimani was no hero. But making him a martyr will only escalate tensions in the Middle East, rolling back both Iraqi and American efforts to foster democracy and security in the region.

Dr. Julie Norman is a lecturer and researcher on Middle East politics in the department of political science at University College London (UCL). Follow her on Twitter @DrJulieNorman2.