I was in Iraq during the assassination of General Soleimani. Trump has made a huge mistake

In death, it now seems the Major-General will achieve what he couldn't in life

Ali-Asghar Abedi
New York
Tuesday 07 January 2020 16:17 GMT
Huge crowds surround funeral procession of Soleimani as it moves through Kerman, Iran

I would have been shocked by the news of the US assassination of Iran’s Major-General Qassem Soleimani no matter where I was in the world. But it was particularly jarring to read about it as I woke up in Iraq this past Friday morning.

I was in the southern city of Najaf at the time, close to the end of a week-long organized tour to several sites of tremendous religious importance for Shia Muslims in Karbala, Najaf, Kufa, Samarra and Kazmain.

The moment I saw the headline on an article on my phone, I knew this would be a major turning point in the region because I was familiar with Soleimani’s profile. And as I scrolled through the piece, one detail in particular jumped out at me: Soleimani had been targeted at Baghdad International Airport, the same airport that I was due to fly out of in less than 24 hours.

At the time it wasn’t clear whether the airport was still operational, whether flights would be canceled, or whether Iraqi airspace would be shut down. But even before the State Department ordered Americans to leave the country immediately, I knew that I didn’t want to risk staying in Iraq a moment longer than necessary and that I didn’t want to fly out of Baghdad — who knew whether airport infrastructure was damaged by airstrikes or whether further military action by the US had been planned?

After a furious scramble, I was able to buy a new ticket to leave Iraq on Friday evening on a five-flight journey that took around 54 hours from my hotel in Najaf to my apartment in New York City. Because I was desperate to get out of Iraq, I was prepared to travel in the wrong direction to leave the country — so I ended up flying to Doha before subsequent flights brought me (slowly) home. But even with a flight booked out of Iraq, I remained tense: given the stature and importance of Soleimani in Iran, there was a huge amount of uncertainty about what might happen next. Only when we were wheels-up on Qatar Airways Flight 461 did I finally breathe a sigh of relief.

To stay on top of developments, I frequently checked on Twitter — which, I found, was home to some extremely simplified hot takes portraying Soleimani as either a villain or a saint. Soleimani was hugely responsible for the defeat of Isis in Iraq. In 2014, when Isis took over territory in northern Iraq and the Iraqi army wilted, Soleimani took the fight to Isis and kept them out of southern Iraq where they most probably would have attacked shrines and pilgrims in places like Karbala. After all, there was precedent for this: Isis’s predecessor Al-Qaeda In Iraq bombed the shrine of Imam Hassan Askari in Samarra in 2006 and again in 2007; they also killed 178 pilgrims in Karbala in March 2004 on the day of Ashura.

But any discussion of Soleimani — clearly a US foe — is incomplete without acknowledging his hugely damaging role in Syria’s bloody civil war, which has caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, mass displacement, a refugee crisis and devastating damage to Syria’s infrastructure.

When Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei described Soleimani as a martyr, I didn’t take it seriously — firstly, because I don’t believe in theocracy; and secondly, because it’s difficult to determine when Khamenei is speaking in his own interests, Iran’s national interest or the interests of Shia Muslims. However, when I saw Iraq-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani also describe Soleimani as a martyr, it caught my attention, because Sistani generally doesn’t comment on political matters. Martyrs have special status within Islam; for example, certain funeral rites are waived for them. In fact, the Shia-Sunni schism is predicated on the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (grandson of the Prophet Muhammad), the most revered figure in Shia Islam, and someone whose death anniversary is commemorated by tens of millions of people visiting his shrine in Karbala each year.

The Trump administration will face inevitable blowback from making Soleimani a martyr. While killing Soleimani is undoubtedly a huge blow to Iran due to his legendary status in that country, his assassination seems to have increased his legend among Iranians and, crucially, many Iraqis.

Meanwhile, in death Soleimani may achieve what he did not in his life: the permanent expulsion of American forces from Iraq. And even if this Iranian goal isn’t achieved in the short term, the Iranian government can use Soleimani’s assassination as a rallying cry for years to come —because Soleimani is now viewed as a martyr, and martyrs live forever.

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