The assassination of Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Irans elite Quds Force, by the United States could be a political game-changer inside an Iraq that recently saw anti-government protests that included calls for Iran to stop meddling in the country, according to Middle East political analysts.
“Soleimani ran the pro-Tehran politicians in Iraq,” Sam Bazzi, a Middle East analyst and the founder of the (the web-based) Islamic Counterterrorism Institute and Hezbollah Watch, told The Epoch Times.
“He had carried a lot of political weight and influence among the Iranian regimes regional proxies and political allies. His death comes at a time when Iraq is divided and in the process of electing a new prime minister,” said Bazzi.
Soleimanis political power inside Iraq was visible—the day after anti-government protests erupted in Iraq, Soleimani flew into Baghdad late at night and took a helicopter to the heavily fortified Green Zone where he surprised a group of top security officials by chairing a meeting in place of the prime minister.
The arrival of Soleimani, the architect of Iraqs regional security apparatus, signaled Tehrans concern over the protests, which had erupted across the capital and in Iraqs Shiite heartland and included calls for Iran to stop meddling in the country.
The protests were fueled by local grievances and mainly directed at political elites, but they also posed a challenge to Iran, which closely backs the Iraqi government as well as powerful armed groups in the country. An increasingly violent crackdown in Iraq had then raised fears of a backlash by Iran and its allies.
“We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Soleimani had told the Iraqi officials, according to two senior officials familiar with the meeting who spoke to Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret gathering. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
Explaining the political significance of Soleimanis death, Kanishkan Sathasivam, a political analyst and Director at William H. Bates Center for Public & Global Affairs at Salem State University, told The Epoch Times that the military commander was “easily the most dangerous individual in the entire greater Middle East, and his death is far more significant and impactful than taking down the leaders of al-Qaeda or ISIS.”
Sathasivam said the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) “folks” will now pressure the Iraqi government to break diplomatic relations with the United States and expel American forces from Iraq.
“But I would also highlight the fact that there have been several large demonstrations in Iraq and Syria and even inside Iran celebrating Soleimanis death. He was very much a hated figure for a lot of people. And the recent anti-government demonstrations inside Iraq routinely included anger specifically aimed at Soleimani.
“So this could energize anti-Iran Shia in Iraq. In Iran, the regime will have no choice but to try and find a way to retaliate in a manner equally high profile as this assassination, possibly targeting a high-level U.S. official,” said Sathasivam.
Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, told The Epoch Times that Soleimanis death can also change the way the pro-American Iraqi military operates.
“A significant weakening of the pro-Iranian Shiah leadership that will now have to strengthen its nationalist credentials instead of playing the Tehran fiddle. Moreover, the military, very much dependent on the United States, will also enhance its credentials and, perhaps, play a large role in political affairs,” explained Kechichian, an author of several books on the Middle East.
Ali Baker, an Ankara, Turkey-based political analyst with Carnegie Middle East, also confirmed Kechichians viewpoint. “Iraq and its security forces will be less constrained to sort out these internal things with the absence of Soleimani. Many Iraqi officials are personally tied to him.
“The killing of the strong militia leader Abu el Mahdi el Muhandis will leave its impact on the PMFs. Unless Iran is willing to act aggressively to overcome the absence of Soleimani, Iraqis will be under less pressure,” said Baker.
Upcoming Parliamentary Elections
Political analysts say the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections are now extremely uncertain and there are multiple factors that could play a role. Soleimanis death could have some impact because of the role he was playing in curbing the recent anti-government protests.
“The outcome of the next parliamentary elections will be more attached—in my opinion—to the protests of the Iraqis that erupted in the last couple of months of 2019.
“These protests were clearly objecting to the foreign influence and interference,” said Baker adding that the “new Iraqi government would represent the ambitions and hopes of the Iraqis and not the Iranian interests.”
Bazzi gave another political dimension to the recent developments that all started with the Dec. 27 killing of a U.S. contractor in an attack on an Iraqi military base by Kataib Hezbollah.
“In fact, the death of the American contractor may or may not have been intentional. Was Tehran seeking to merely harass U.S. forces or trigger a major crisis as a prelude for its allies in the Iraqi parliament to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq?
“Tehran, for sure, would like to see the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region, but especially from Iraq and the Gulf,” said Bazzi.
Kechichian, however, believes that Soleimanis death will have a low impact on the awaited Iraqi elections and that if it happens it would benefit another dormant faction.
“Marginal impact as the overwhelming majority will continue to play its sectarian preferences. If Iran is sidelined in Iraq, which is a possibility though premature to affirm at this time, the upcoming elections might also strengthen the relatively dormant Kurdish hand,” said Kechichian.