In mid-October, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani met with his Iraqi Shi’ite militia allies at a villa on the banks of the Tigris River, looking across at the U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad.
The Revolutionary Guards commander instructed his top ally in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and other powerful militia leaders to step up attacks on U.S. targets in the country using sophisticated new weapons provided by Iran, two militia commanders and two security sources briefed on the gathering told Reuters.
The strategy session, which has not been previously reported, came as mass protests against Iran’s growing influence in Iraq were gaining momentum, putting the Islamic Republic in an unwelcome spotlight. Soleimani’s plans to attack U.S. forces aimed to provoke a military response that would redirect that rising anger toward the United States, according to the sources briefed on the gathering, Iraqi Shi’ite politicians and government officials close to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Soleimani’s efforts ended up provoking the U.S. attack on Friday that killed him and Muhandis, marking a major escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran. The two men died in air strikes on their convoy at a Baghdad airport as they headed to the capital, dealing a major blow to the Islamic Republic and the Iraqi paramilitary groups it supports.
Interviews with the Iraqi security sources and Shi’ite militia commanders offer a rare glimpse of how Soleimani operated in Iraq, which he once told a Reuters reporter he knew like the back of his hand.
Two weeks before the October meeting, Soleimani ordered Iranian Revolutionary Guards to move more sophisticated weapons – such as Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired missiles that could bring down helicopters – to Iraq through two border crossings, the militia commanders and Iraqi security sources told Reuters.