Murder, Inc.? An Assassination in Baghdad and the Risk of a Wider War in the Middle East

Mass. Peace Action Update, January 2020

No War with Iran rally, Boston, Jan 4, 2020
No War with Iran rally, Boston, Jan 4, 2020

by Jeff Klein

Donald Trump began the new year with a reckless move that pushed the world closer to a dangerously widened war in the Middle East. The killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi general Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – along with 8 other Iraqis and Iranians — by drone missiles in Baghdad on January 2 was an aggressive and criminal act, no matter how much the White House tries to spin it as a “defensive measure.”

International law and the UN charter allow military action under only very narrow circumstances: either to repel an invasion or to preempt an imminent hostile attack. The US has provided no credible information of any impending Iranian military threats. And even if the Iranians or their allies may have been planning something in retaliation for earlier US bombings in Syria and Iraq, “preemption” only applies to directly thwarting an attack, not the assassination of a top military commander far from any zone of conflict. Recent news reports that the Soleimani assassination was in planning for 7 months before it took place further undercut the Trump administration pretext of self-defense.

Of course, the US has claimed for many years a de facto immunity from the norms of international law, whether in the bombing of Libya and Syria, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the ongoing deadly economic sanctions or blockades imposed against nations such as Syria, Venezuela or Iran that are regarded as “unfriendly.” Unfortunately, this lawless US behavior has been continually ignored or even enabled by Liberals/Democrats – with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders – and by the US NATO allies, whose response has been notably muted.

Democratic legislators and most presidential candidates have reinforced Trump’s message that Soleimani was a murderous terrorist who deserved to die, mostly registering only procedural complaints that “Congress was not informed” about the attacks.  But with or without Congressional approval, the Baghdad assassinations were criminal acts of aggression, not only against Iran but also against our nominal “ally” Iraq, on whose territory the killings took place. Iraqi General Al-Muhandis was a commander of what the US calls the “pro-Iranian militias,” which are actually Iraqi government-recognized and -financed combat units helping to defeat the Islamic State fighters that the US is nominally in Iraq to suppress.

Bernie Sanders – endorsed for president by Mass. Peace Action for his long history of opposing US wars of aggression — has spoken out forcefully against this latest escalation:

“When I voted against the war in Iraq in 2002, I feared it would lead to greater destabilization of the country and the region. Today, 17 years later, that fear has unfortunately turned out to be true. The United States has lost approximately 4,500 brave troops, tens of thousands have been wounded, and we’ve spent trillions on this war. Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars. Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.”

Democratic Congressional leaders had recently agreed to remove a provision from the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have blocked funding for a war with Iran barring congressional approval, along with another amendment to repeal 2001’s “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” (AUMF).

Only 48 House members voted against the final $748 billion Pentagon appropriation without these amendments, despite the best efforts of peace advocates and other progressives. House members to be commended for voting “no” included only 3 from the Massachusetts delegation: Reps. Jim McGovern, Joe Kennedy and Ayanna Pressley; in the Senate, the bill was opposed by just 8 Democrats, including Ed Markey (Sanders and Warren were recorded as “not voting”).

In response to Trump’s escalation, Sen. Sanders and Rep. Khanna have introduced legislation to block funding for any war with Iran, stating:

“Today, we are seeing a dangerous escalation that brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East. A war with Iran could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars and lead to even more deaths, more conflict, more displacement in that already highly volatile region of the world.

“At a time when we face the urgent need to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, to build the housing we desperately need, and to address the existential crisis of climate change, we as a nation must get our priorities right,” they added. “We must invest in the needs of the American people, not spend trillions more on endless wars.”

Under pressure from the Democratic base and nationwide anti-war protests, Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed a vote on a “privileged” war powers resolution – originally introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee and Ilhan Omar — that could theoretically force a halt to the Administration’s military hostilities with Iran. The measure, H.Con.Res.81, passed the House with the support of nearly all Democratic reps (including every member of the Massachusetts delegation) but only a handful of Republicans. A similar measure has been introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine, but whether the Republican leadership will allow a vote is uncertain. In any case, there seems to be little hope of overriding an expected Trump veto.

Regardless of any potential Congressional action, it is hard to predict how ongoing hostilities between the US and Iran will play out. On January 7 Iranian leaders, under intense domestic popular pressure to retaliate, launched a limited missile attack on US bases in Iraq, making it clear that they did not intend to further escalate the crisis militarily.  The Iranians went so far as to warn the US ahead of time and the missiles apparently caused material damage only, but no US casualties. Trump, for his part, seemed anxious to tone down his belligerent rhetoric, though still spinning a confusing narrative of lies about supposed planned Iranian attacks on US embassies.

This latest round of tit-for-tat violence flowed most of all from Trump’s May 2018 repudiation of the Iran nuclear agreement (NCPOA) and his aggressive “maximum pressure” campaign of brutal economic sanctions that have severely wounded the Iranian economy.  Most punishing is that the US has not only restricted its own trade with Iran but has taken measures to severely limit other nations’ freedom to do so, especially limiting Iran’s ability to export oil even to willing partners. European signatories to the NCPOA are anxious to preserve the agreement but have shown little willingness to defy the US in order to maintain the promised sanctions relief.  Iran, for its part, has moved to exceed some technical limits in the agreement as a way to pressure the other parties to comply with their obligations. However, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and with its continued participation in the “additional protocol” of intense IAEA inspections there is no evidence of Iranian moves toward developing nuclear weapons.

Trump and his advisors have had Iran in their crosshairs from even before he was elected.  Despite running on a message to end US Middle East wars, his campaign and his administration have been filled with intensely anti-Iran neocons and Israel partisans – including mega-donor Sheldon Adelson – who have wanted to ramp-up tensions and possibly go to war with Iran to achieve regime change. It is no accident that Israel, not Congress, got advance warning of the Soleimani drone killing — and the attack was duly cheered by Netanyahu, along with leading Israel supporters in the US.

Ironically, Trump’s actions have served to unite people in the Middle East against the US presence in the region. Soleimani is revered by many for his defeat of violent Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands in Iraq and millions in Iran have attended the funerals of the murdered military leaders, including many who are otherwise opposed to their current governments. Reporters have noted a new Middle East version of Trump’s MAGA slogan, which in this case anti-US demonstrators explain stands for “Make America Go Away.”

The Iraqi parliament has passed a resolution demanding the exit of US troops from the country and Iraq has lodged a complaint with the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council against the US violation of its sovereignty. US ally/vassal Saudi Arabia, along with the other Gulf monarchies, which fear finding themselves in the front lines of a US-Iran War, has been notably silent on the latest crisis launched by Trump’s action. It has been reported that Soleimani was carrying messages from Riyadh aimed at defusing tensions between the Saudis and Iranians when Trump ordered his assassination.

Members of Congress and media pundits routinely repeat the charge that “Iran is the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism” and claim, with little evidence, that it is “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans” in Iraq. But by any objective reckoning it is the US and its allies who are responsible for the most terror in the Middle East, including the deaths of millions through military attacks, arming violent proxies and regional allies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Palestine.

The latest atrocity in Baghdad places the entire world on the knife-edge of wider war – or, more hopefully, it may lead to the forced withdrawal of US forces from much of the Middle East. In which case, Trump’s crime may turn out to be a blunder that undermines the very US imperial interests that it aimed to promote.

—Jeff Klein is a member of the Mass. Peace Action Board of Directors and of Dorchester People for Peace. He writes and lectures frequently on the Middle East, where he has traveled widely over the years.