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Iran’s man in Iraq: Soleimani’s deadly fight against the US

Mourners walk back from a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in front of the former U.S. Embassy, in Tehran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi) Mourners walk back from a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in front of the former U.S. Embassy, in Tehran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Mourners walk back from a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in front of the former U.S. Embassy, in Tehran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg January 15, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Soleimani was Iran’s man in Iraq, and the militias he backed killed many American soldiers.
  • Iranian-backed militias in Iraq killed about 600 Americans, not thousands as Trump said.
  • Iran spread a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb.

At a campaign rally in Milwaukee, President Donald Trump touted the American airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

He said Soleimani was the "No. 1 terrorist."

"He's killed hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of Americans," Trump said Jan. 14.

He tied Soleimani to roadside bombs, not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan as well.

"He was a designated terrorist by President Obama, who didn't do anything about it," Trump said. "As usual. They don't do anything. They designate and they don't do anything about. He should have been killed 20 years ago."

That changed, he said, "on my direction."

Trump exaggerates on some key points. The high-end estimate of total war dead in Iraq is about 208,000, which includes the civilian and combatant victims after the American-led attack in 2003 and sectarian violence by both Sunni and Shiite forces. Trump put them all at Soleimani’s feet.

The last Pentagon estimate of U.S. deaths by Iranian-backed militias was 603, not thousands as Trump said. And Iran’s role in Afghanistan was "ambiguous," in the words of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan in 2009. Iranian weapons did make their way to the Taliban, while at the same time, the Iranian government put much more effort into supporting the Afghan government. 

But a core fact remains: Soleimani, through his leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, was Iran’s man in Iraq, and the militias he backed killed many American soldiers.

A potent political and military force

In August 2007, Soleimani passed word to American forces that he "was the sole decision-maker on Iranian activities in Iraq."

The American-led invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed sectarian violence, pitting the country’s minority Sunni Muslim population against the Shiite majority. Iran, their Shiite neighbor to the east and Iraq’s long-time enemy, saw an opportunity to expand its influence, empowered by the embrace of many Shiite Iraqis.

At the direction of Soleimani and his Iranian Quds Force, Iran became a source of arms, funding and political guidance that allowed some Iraqi Shiite militias to thrive.

They used a range of weapons against American and Iraqi forces. They had small arms, mortars and rocket propelled grenades. And they had roadside bombs.

Roadside bombs, often in the form of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), posed a potent threat to American soldiers. IEDs, whether along roads or inside buildings, were responsible for nearly half of all deaths. As the Iraq War progressed, Iran worked with its proxy militias, spreading new IED designs to make them more destructive and deadly. 

When the United States launched its attack on Iraq, its primary opponents were Sunni Muslims loyal to Hussein. As the war continued, the conflict shifted to Shiite forces, many of whom were aligned with the Shiite government in Iran.

Early on, the making and placing IEDs was a business for hire, with teams offering their services to both Sunni and Shiite forces.

"They advertise their skills on the Internet, and are temporarily contracted on a per-job basis but otherwise remain autonomous," a 2007 Congressional Research Service report said. "A typical IED terrorist cell consists of six to eight people, including a financier, bomb maker, emplacer, triggerman, spotter, and often a cameraman.

But sometime around 2005, a new, more deadly device came to the battlefield –– the Explosively Formed Projectile, or EFP. The U.S. Army linked those weapons to the Iranian-backed militias.

What set these weapons apart from the more familiar IED is they incorporated a copper plate that, on detonation, turned into molten slugs. Those slugs could cut through the armor of any military vehicle, even an M1 tank, with devastating impacts on soldiers.

American deaths tied to Iranian-backed Iraqi militias

The explosively formed projectiles were distinct from IEDs not only in their design, but, according to the U.S. military, in who used them. 

"The EFPs also never proliferated into the hands of Sunni militants, indicating that the Iranians kept tight control of their distribution," the Army’s Iraq War report said. "The major Shi’a militant networks all owed their potency — and even existence — to the Iranian regime’s Quds Force and its powerful commander, Qassem Soleimani."

Periodically, U.S. forces would uncover bomb-making shops in Iraq. The materials they found revealed a complex supply chain with Iran providing some key components and other parts coming from across the region.

"We traced the make of the copper used in them directly back to Iran," retired Army Lt. Col. Jeanne Godfroy told us.

The Army had few doubts that the plans and methods for making the explosively formed projectiles came from Iran.

University of Michigan professor Juan Cole warned against assuming that Iran was in charge of everything. Cole said the Sunni forces had a version of these devices too. Shaped charges, as they are called, date back to World War II.

"They were used by the Sunni insurgents quite extensively, including against Shiite forces, and were deployed in Sunni areas like al-Anbar Province, which makes nonsense of the Pentagon allegation that Iran supplied them," Cole said. 

But the EFPs were not your average shaped-charge device.

"Sunnis tried to manufacture EFPs, but they were not effective in manufacturing the precision concave angles and copper consistency required to convert the plates into a molten projectile," said retired Col. Frank Sobchak, a principal author of the Army’s Iraq War study.

The U.S. Central Command reported that between 2005 and 2011, explosively formed projectiles had killed 196 Americans and wounded 861

The U.S. Defense Department has estimated that 603 U.S. troops were killed by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. These deaths came from many weapons, including small arms, mortars, improvised explosive devices, sniper fire and more.

Soleimani’s role

As commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Soleimani was frequently in and out of Iraq. He was part of political negotiations, and met with militia leaders.

But the Army’s history of the war noted that by 2007, Soleimani’s effectiveness had created a new challenge for Iran.

"By trying to arm all Iraqi Shi’a opponents of the United States, Soleimani and the Quds Force had helped incite a civil war among their top Iraqi clients, and it was unclear whether Soleimani or anyone else was actually in full control of the most active Shi’a militant elements," the report said

Further muddying the waters, Godfroy told us that not all Iraqi Shiite militias received full backing from Iran. Some had a tighter relationship than others. When they weren’t targeting Americans, they could have skirmishes with each other.

Sobchak agrees that the level of control Iran held over its proxies in Iraq is difficult to determine. But that had no impact on the core threat that Iran and Soleimani posed for American forces.

"The training, equipping, and funding that Iran provided to those militia proxies made them orders of magnitude more lethal than they originally were," Sobchak said.

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Our Sources

Donald Trump, Rally in Milwaukee, Wisc., Jan. 14, 2019

U.S. Defense Department, Casualties, accessed Jan. 9, 2019

U.S. Central Command, U.S. Casualties associated to EFP events, September 2015

Iraq Body Count, Iraq body count, accessed Jan. 9, 2019

U.S. Army, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War - Vol. 1, 2019

U.S. Army, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War - Vol. 2, 2019

Military Times, DoD discloses data on Iraq War deaths linked to Iran, Sept. 16, 2015

U.S. Military Academy Combating Terrorism Center, Iran’s Ambiguous Role in Afghanistan, March 2010

Congressional Research Service, Recent Trends in Active-Duty Military Deaths, May 20, 2019

Defense One, How Many US Troops Were Killed By Iranian IEDs in Iraq?, Sept. 8, 2015

Joint Improvised Device Defeat Organization, Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions, accessed Jan. 8. 2019

Columbia Journalism Review, Get the Facts Straight on Iran and EFPs, April 10, 2007

Wall Street Journal, U.S. Find Stokes Fears Of Iraqis' Bomb-Making Ability, Feb. 27, 2007

New York Times, U.S. Displays Bomb Parts Said to Be Made in Iran, Feb. 27, 2007

Military Times, Iran killed more US troops in Iraq than previously known, Pentagon says, April 4, 2019

Congressional Research Service, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)  in Iraq and Afghanistan: Effects and Countermeasures, Aug. 28, 2007

Philip Giraldi, The Truth About Iraqi EFPs, 2008

Brown University, Costs of War - Iraqi civilians, November 2018

National Defense University Press, Understanding the Enemy: The Enduring Value of Technical and Forensic Exploitation, Sept. 30, 2014

Email exchange, U.S. Army Colonel Frank K. Sobchak, Jan. 8, 2019 

Email exchange, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jeanne F. Godfroy, Jan. 8, 2019

Email exchange, Juan Cole, professor of history, University of Michigan, Jan. 9, 2019


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