Soleimani's Successor Visits Iraq As Trump Threatens Retaliation for Embassy Attack

The commander of Iran's covert Quds Force and successor to assassinated commander Major General Qassem Soleimani has traveled to Iraq to meet with officials. The move came as President Donald Trump threatens to retaliate against Tehran for the resumption of attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other American targets in Iraq.

On Thursday, Iranian state media said Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani traveled to Baghdad the previous night, as U.S.-Iran tensions again threatened to spill over into open conflict with mere weeks of Trump's term remaining.

The state-run Fars News Agency said Ghaani "traveled to Iraq to discuss ways to further develop mutual cooperation between Tehran and Baghdad in meetings with the Iraqi officials." Ghaani also visited the country to meet with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, President Barham Salih and a number of other Iraqi officials in early December.

Tehran wields enormous influence in Iraq, where it dominates the major political parties and commands a network of powerful and well-funded militia groups. America's disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened the door to the Iranian regime, and leaked diplomatic cables have shown that Tehran used the insurgency and chaos to extend control over all aspects of the Iraqi state.

Soleimani was Iran's point man in Iraq, directing politicians and militias to support Iranian interests and squeeze out the dwindling American presence. Soleimani's activities in Iraq—in particular the storming of the American embassy in Baghdad last year—were a key driver in the U.S. decision to assassinate him in a drone strike in Baghdad in January.

Within hours of the killing, Ghaani was appointed his successor and commander of the covert Quds Force, which is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ghaani is not as significant a figure as Soleimani, who spent decades amassing and honing power, and was credited with masterminding Iran's foreign policy strategy and spreading Tehran's influence across the region.

Still, Ghaani served as Soleimani's deputy since 1997 and, like his former boss, served in the Iran-Iraq War that ran through much of the 1980s. Appointing Ghaani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Quds Force program "will be unchanged from the time of his predecessor," describing the commander as "one of the most distinguished Revolutionary Guard commanders."

Soleimani made regular trips to Iraq to coordinate with Iranian-allied forces there, both over the fight against the Islamic State and pressuring the Americans to leave the country. Among those killed alongside him in January was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella militia organization, which is dominated by Iranian allies.

Ghaani's visit to Baghdad is not unusual, but comes as Trump hints at military action if any Americans are killed in a fresh spike in attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq.

On Sunday, unidentified militia members fired 21 rockets at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, in the largest attack on the facility since 2010. Iraqi militias paused attacks on American targets in October, offering the U.S. time to present a roadmap for full withdrawal from the country.

Attacks resumed in November, and the U.S. embassy has since been targeted twice. IEDs have also been targeting American convoys on Iraqi roads.

On Wednesday, Trump tweeted a picture of three Iranian-made rockets that failed to fire in Sunday's attack. "Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq," the president wrote. "Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over."

Soleimani was assassinated after an Iranian-backed attack on the Baghdad embassy. It is possible that Ghaani has taken his place on America's kill list, and his name may have been among the options reportedly presented to Trump by top national security officials this week to deter more Iranian attacks in Iraq.

Iranian leaders, meanwhile, continue to vow revenge for Soleimani. Tehran launched ballistic missile attacks against Iraqi bases hosting American troops immediately after the commander's killing in January. However, regime officials have repeatedly suggested there is more retaliation to come.

An unnamed defense official told CNN that the U.S. expects further retaliation for Soleimani's assassination. "They aren't going to give up," the official said, adding that Tehran would likely not rush to follow through on its threats.

The assassination of top scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month further increased tensions. Iran has blamed Israel, and suggested the operation was supported by the Americans. The regime vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh, who was considered the father of Iran's nuclear program.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad had already temporarily withdrawn staff given security concerns. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. may close the facility entirely if the Iraqi government could not guarantee its security.

Iraq visit for Iran's Soleimani successor Ghaani
A supporter of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces wears a face mask with a sticker of slain Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad's Karrada neighbourhood on October 17, 2020. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty