The events that took place in the Middle East at the beginning of the year and continue to unfold as tensions continue between the United States, Iran, and Iraq, has caused more stress and confusion among the American populace than any other action in the Middle East in years, perhaps since the war that brought the U.S. into the region in the first place. This situation with its varying factions and names that the average westerner struggles to pronounce is hard to pierce even for experts of the Middle East, as seen by the diametrically opposed opinions on the subject. One things is clear, regardless of whether or not the assassination of Qasem Soleimani was justified, the act itself was a great risk and the consequences of which may yet to be seen.
Beginning with the facts, after December 27th when an attack on an Iraqi military base led to the death of a US civilian contractor and the wounding of several US and Iraqi military personnel, the United States launched strikes at five Kataib Hezbollah (KH) controlled sites, killing 25 and wounding 51. Two of these strikes hit targets in Syria, while three hit targets in Iraq with the Iraqi Prime Minister condemning the strikes as a "violation of Iraqi sovereignty". While Jonathon Hoffman, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense claims that Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for attacking US forces and Iraqi Security Forces. Others claim that there were multiple potential culprits for the act including Islamic State sleeper cells and Arab and Kurdish militias. Additionally, although Jonathon Hoffman claims in his statement that: "The U.S. and its coalition partners fully respect Iraqi sovereignty, and support a strong and independent Iraq," this seems to be contradicted by the United States' response to Iraqi objections later on (more on that later).
As for the claim that this attack was Kataib Hezbollah's doing, there does not seem to be conclusive evidence of their responsible in the attack released to the public, and with the Islamic State being active in the region and openly hostile to the United States, it seems to be a strange oversight that they do not even seem to have been considered. Gareth Porter of the American Conservative, suggests that the reason for this hasty blaming of KH was the doing of war-hawks such Mike Pompeo and others who have been calling for war with Iran for months and even suggesting the assassination of General Soleimani in response to the December 27th attack. As for the strikes by the US and the immediate response, this is perhaps best described by Gareth Porter himself, "The U.S. retaliatory strikes against the militia’s weapons storage sites and other targets on Dec. 29 were nowhere near Kirkuk. One of the strikes was against al Qaim on the Syrian border 400 kilometers away from Kirkuk and two others were in Syria. Porter then goes on to explain that these strikes do not seem to be seeking justice for the death of a US citizen or self-defense for US and Iraqi personnel in the area, but instead seem to have been used as a provocation in order to get a further justification for the assassination of General Soleimani.
If individuals such as Mike Pompeo desired and sought after this justification then they got it on December 31st when dozens of Iraqi militia stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, leading to property damage and the exchange of shots, however no one was hurt in the process on either side. In response to this attack on the US embassy, the US conducted a missile attack on Baghdad International Airport, killing Major-General Qasem Soleimani and six others, including militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Soleimani, the name that has garnered the most recognition was, "the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force" overseeing Iranian proxies and militia forces throughout the Middle East, while al-Muhandis was an Iraqi and deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Committee, the umbrella organization of groups such as Khataib Hezbollah. As most already know, Qasem Soleimani was one of Iran's main generals and perhaps second only to Ayatollah Khamenei himself while al-Muhandis' Popular Mobilization Comittee, " is supported by Iran, but is also an official part of the Iraqi security forces and has played a key role in the defeat of IS."
Since the assassination, US-Iran tensions seem to have peaked and begun to dissipate after Iran retaliated with vague threats and a missile attack "on two airbases housing US forces in Iraq," of which there were no casualties, and increased sanctions from the side of the US. Although these assassinations were potentially warranted because of Soleimani and al-Muhandis' alleged mistreatment of Christians and attacks on US troops, these asssassinations were imprudent and a strategic and political blunder.
Beginning with the imprudence of assassinating Soleimani and al-Muhandis, this action seems to have ignored basic concepts of the Shiite Muslim faith, namely its cult of martyrs and its underdog mentality. As Moojan Momen and Jason Pack of The Washington Post explain, "To this day in Iran and in Iraq, the Shiites mourn the death of the Imam Hussein in the 7th century. Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, had rejected an offer from the Umayyad Empire, which he considered to have usurped his family’s rightful position. With 72 companions, he fought a hopeless battle against their army of thousands at Karbala in what is now southern Iraq. All were killed." They go on to explain that by killing Soleimani, the US has simply made a martyr of him, fitting itself into the ancient framework of the "hopeless martyr" fighting against the "evil empire". This narrative has played itself to great effect throughout the Islamic world, uniting rivals such as Moqtada Sadr and Qais al-Khazali, and even Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite religious authority of Iraq, Hezbollah proper, and even groups less aligned with the Shiite faith such as the Houthi rebels, Hamas, and even Marxist organizations such as the PFLP.
In lieu of these events, the Iraqi parliament has voted for the expulsion of all US troops from their country to which, "said Trump, if Iraqis expel U.S. troops, then we will impose upon them 'sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.'" This is made especially hard to stomach when put in light of one of the US' most recent agreements where, “the sovereign right of the government of Iraq to request the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq at any time,” was officially recognized. Additionally, Rebecca Ingber of the Washington Post, alluded to the fact that, by initiating an assassination on Iraqi soil without conferring with the Iraqi government and on an Iraqi citizen (al-Muhandis) as well as on a state actor (Qasem Soleimani), is a grave violation of Iraqi sovereignty: "Iraq, of course, did not itself attack us. A crucial step in determining whether it is necessary to use force on the territory of a state that did not itself attack us — the long-standing U.S. approach, dating to the Caroline incident, increasingly adopted by other states — has been to, first, establish the imminence of a forthcoming attack and then to analyze whether that state is itself unwilling or unable to prevent or stop the attack. The administration has not put forward evidence on either question — and has not even addressed the issue of Iraqi sovereignty."
Since this vote in parliament, Shiite leaders have met in the Iranian city of Qom to organize a response to the US with Moqtada Sadr, "the populist Shiite clerice" taking a leading role and calling for a "million-man march" on January 14th in protest of American forces in Iraq. Following this call, on January 24th, hundreds of thousands of protesters have rallied at Baghdad, demanding US withdrawal from Iraq with the US yet to respond. This kind of rally not only shows the backlash that has come from our own ally in light of this assassination, but it also shows the united front beginning to form in the Shiite and broader Islamic world, as well as the political power of populist figures like Sadr, all of which should make one reconsider the US' position in the Middle East. Hopefully the optimism of commentators like Neil Patel is right and tensions will not erupt once again into war between the US and Middle East, but one thing is for sure, many stand to gain from this US-Iran flash point including those abroad such as Moqtada Sadr and other Shia leaders and domestic opponents of the administration such as Bernie Sanders. If the Trump administration is to succeed for a second term, it must avoid war in the Middle East for its sake and the country's sake.