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News Analysis: Trump’s Baghdad airstrike could lead to broader Mideast conflict

U.S. Embassy siege in Iraq
Protesters smash a window inside the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Dec. 31.
(Associated Press)

President Trump ordered the U.S. airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, on Friday at Baghdad’s international airport, the Pentagon said, a dramatic move that raised the possibility of a broader conflict in the Middle East.

“At the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The Pentagon said that Suleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

Trump did not have an immediate comment apart from tweeting an image of the U.S. flag.

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The strike also killed Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, a senior Iraqi politician and a high-level security official confirmed to the Associated Press.

Suleimani was considered one of the most powerful figures in the region, responsible for spreading Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, often through violence. The U.S. also blamed him for approving an attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad this week.

Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with Kataib Hezbollah, which was involved in an attack on the U.S. Embassy this week.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Muhandis had arrived at the airport in a convoy to receive Suleimani, whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.

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The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because they were not authorized to give official statements.

The senior politician said Suleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

Republican hard-liners in Washington cheered Trump’s decision, with some describing Suleimani as a terrorist.

With some warning of Iranian counterattacks, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted a message to Tehran — “if you want more, you will get more.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) expressed concerns about Trump single-handedly sparking a wider conflict.

“Did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?” he tweeted.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, called the airstrike an “act of international terrorism” by “assassinating” the general. “The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” he tweeted.

The airstrike begins a new and even more volatile chapter in Trump’s uneven foreign policy record.

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None of his most championed causes — a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, disarmament of nuclear North Korea, the fall of Iran’s leadership — has produced desired results so far. To the contrary, especially with this week’s storming of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, those endeavors have suffered considerable setbacks.

Trump can point to a handful of accomplishments around the globe, such as the military raid that ended in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, and the House passage last month of a revamped trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

But rather than resolving long-standing conflicts that Trump once boasted would be simple to fix, he has been shown the limitations of both his power of persuasion and his notion that he can throw money, or the promise of profits, at a problem to solve it. That is especially the case in the Middle East, where there are strong sectarian or nationalist sentiments, or in a dictatorship like North Korea, where the leader is impervious to popular demands.

Trump branded his foreign policy as “America first.” Its hallmarks include trial balloons, unpredictability and treaty busting — and the desire to keep the world on its toes. He has alienated allies, courted adversaries and reduced U.S. troops in Syria, something that came at the expense of Kurdish allies who were killed when Turkey invaded to fill the breach.

Unlike most previous presidencies, Trump conducts a “top-down” policy that eschews the usual inter-agency deliberation examining the pros and cons of actions, and considering potential collateral damage.

“The president is a big believer that unpredictability gives him power which would solve a number of American challenges around the world,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush and global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It gives him some power, but there are negatives.”

Those include baffling foe and friend alike, as well as the American public and the foreign policy establishment, and creating a sense of unreliability.

With North Korea, despite becoming the first sitting president to step into the country, and two historic summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump has not reduced Kim’s arsenals or stopped construction of nuclear infrastructure by Pyongyang. In fact, the two sides have yet to even define “denuclearization.” After apparent rapprochement, rhetoric from North Korea has again heated up, and the testing of short-range missiles has intensified.

On the first day of the year, as Kim was threatening “shocking, offensive measures” and to unveil a new “strategic” weapon, Trump was again praising the North Korean.

“Look, he likes me, I like him, we get along,” Trump said at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “But he did sign a contract, he did sign an agreement talking about denuclearization.... I think he’s a man of his word so we’re going to find out, but I think he’s a man of his word.”

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In fact, the “contract” that Trump referred to is only a vaguely worded agreement to shared goals of removing nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.

For Trump, some analysts say, his goal is not to resolve a problem but simply to appear to be tackling it, often without an enunciated goal.

“He looked at Iran and said he’d be tough. So he looks tough. He’ll declare: Mission accomplished!” said Daniel Byman, a former government official who is an associate dean at Georgetown University. “I don’t think he cares too much about outcomes.”

The attempt to isolate and cripple the Iranian government, following the decision to withdraw from the landmark Iran nuclear deal, has been one of the few consistent strategies in Trump’s foreign policy. The administration, in a “maximum-pressure campaign,” has placed tough sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, banks, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and scores of individuals. The measures have floored Iran’s economy.

Yet the “malign behavior” that the administration says it wants to halt has apparently continued. The U.S. blamed Iran for rocket attacks in September on Saudi oil-production facilities but did not retaliate militarily. On Dec. 27, a barrage of rocket fire killed an American contractor on an Iraqi base in northern Iraq. It followed a sustained campaign blamed on Iraqi Shiite fighters from the pro-Iranian militia Kataib Hezbollah.

The U.S. responded, launching airstrikes that killed 25 people and wounded many more. The action infuriated Iraqis from the government, and across social and political lines. It led to this week’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was quelled, for the moment, by U.S. military reinforcements dispatched to the site.

Trump boasted the embassy was protected, saying there would be “no Benghazi” on his watch, alluding to U.S. facilities attacked in Libya in 2012, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. The incidents are hardly analogous: Libya was a lawless country and the buildings attacked were relatively vulnerable; the massive, 104-acre U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad sits in a heavily fortified Green Zone, off-limits to most Iraqis.

That the Baghdad rampage could take place owed in part to the refusal of Iraqi security forces to stop the attackers, U.S. officials said, and underscores the failure of both Iraq and the U.S. to reduce Iran’s presence in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday acknowledged the problem.

Iraqi leaders must “get the Iranian influence out of the country,” Esper said. He warned that the Pentagon had “indications” that another attack on the embassy or other U.S. facilities may be planned, and said the U.S. government was prepared to act “preemptively.”

“The game has changed,” Esper said.

Speaking alongside Esper at a Pentagon briefing was Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the more than 750 Marines and paratroopers rushed to Baghdad constituted adequate force.

“There is sufficient combat power there, air and ground, that anyone who attempts to overrun that will run into a buzz saw,” he said.

Kataib Hezbollah, for its part, suggested that its withdrawal from the embassy grounds was a tactical retreat and that it would begin working on legislation to oust “criminal invading foreign forces.”

Elsewhere in the Mideast, Trump’s efforts have stalled. After pledging to come up with a peace deal for Israel and the Palestinians to succeed where all before him failed, the president has largely abandoned the effort.

The last draft offered Palestinians economic benefits if they put aside for now their statehood aspirations — a nonstarter for most Palestinians.

Trump thus far has shown no signs of switching gears in his handling of these conflicts, even as the next weeks will prove daunting, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Thursday on Twitter. According to Haass, Trump faces a crisis with Iran because he rejected diplomacy and one with North Korea because “he asked too much of diplomacy.”

Times staff writer Noah Bierman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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