“In recent days,” Trump continued, “he was planning new attacks on American targets, but we stopped him.”
Trump put Soleimani’s intentions in more colloquial terms Tuesday, saying that the Iranian should not have been in Iraq in the first place.
“They weren’t there to discuss a vacation,” he said of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, founder of the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah, who was also killed in the attack. “They weren’t there to go to a nice resort someplace in Baghdad. They were there to discuss bad business.”
On both days, Trump seemed to center the rationale for the strike against Soleimani on those Americans who had already suffered at his hands, the “thousands” he referred to in his address.
Critics of Trump have raised questions about that figure, noting that before Soleimani’s death, no such attribution had been widely reported. While that’s generally true, the figure — offered with unusual consistency from the president and the administration — is rooted in a years-long assessment of Iran’s activities, particularly in Iraq.
It’s important to note the distinction used by both Trump and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper this week: The “thousands” figure includes those wounded in attacks. The initial Defense Department statement about Soleimani’s death attributed to him — and the Quds Force broadly — “the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.” On Monday, Esper credited Soleimani specifically, saying he “alone has the blood of hundreds of Americans — he’s wounded thousands of American coalition partners.”
This culpability is not presented as direct. Soleimani led the Quds Force, which in turn supplied weapons and training to groups and insurgents in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah. An April 2011 report from the Washington Institute notes that Kataib Hezbollah “was formed in early 2007 as a vehicle for the [Quds Force] to deploy its most experienced operators and most sensitive equipment.”
“Since then,” it continues, the group “has developed into a compact, disciplined movement of fewer than four hundred men under [Quds Force] control.”
The Quds Force was undeniably acting at Soleimani’s direction. In March 2008, he even sent a message to David H. Petraeus, then the commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq.
“General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qasem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan,” the message read. “And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.”
According to the Defense Department under both Trump and Barack Obama, Iran’s activity in Iraq included the provision of and training on several weapons systems deployed against Americans and Iraqis. One was the use of a particularly deadly form of explosive called an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP. Another was improvised rocket-assisted munitions, or IRAMs.
As The Washington Post’s Alex Horton reported this week, EFPs “killed at least 196 U.S. troops and wounded nearly 900 between 2005 and 2011,” according to estimates provided by the Defense Department in 2015. The devices used explosive force to turn a copper sheet into flying projectiles that could penetrate armor, frequently resulting in significant lower-body injuries requiring amputation.
The complexity of manufacturing the devices led Americans to suspect Iranian involvement early in the conflict in Iraq.
“The few EFPs that were in Iraq during the early summer of 2004 invariably appeared in Shiite-controlled areas near the Iranian border, such as Basra and southeast Baghdad,” The Post reported in 2007, noting that similar devices had been used by Iran-backed forces in Lebanon in the late 1990s.
“Debate intensified within the U.S. government over Iran’s role in distributing EFPs,” that report indicated, but “evidence accumulated.”
“For example, according to a former [Defense Intelligence Agency] analyst, the C-4 plastic explosive found in some EFPs chemically matched that sold by Tehran’s Defense Industries Organization and identified by specific lot numbers,” The Post reported at the time. “Intelligence also indicated the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was training and giving explosives to certain Iraqi Shiite groups, a senior DOD official said.”
In 2005, the administration of President George W. Bush privately protested Iran’s alleged role in supplying the devices to forces in Iraq.
“We will continue to judge Iran by its actions in Iraq,” it read, in part.
It didn’t work. According to the Washington Institute report, the Quds Force accelerated its provision of EFPs to militant groups in Iraq after seeing how successfully they had been deployed by Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel.
“There was zero question where they were coming from,” Stanley McChrystal, then commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command, told the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins in 2013. “We knew where all the factories were in Iran. The EFPs killed hundreds of Americans.”
By 2010, “the incidence of EFP use … dropped from around 60 per month at the height of the ‘surge’ in 2007 to an average of 17 per month in the first nine months” of the year, according to a report from the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center that year. The “most visible symbol of Iran’s support” had instead become “the 20-30 rocket attacks launched against U.S. bases each month in Iraq, almost all of which involve entire rocket/mortar systems or components (such as fuel packs) identified as Iranian-produced by U.S. weapons intelligence specialists."
The Washington Institute report later indicated that “an average of twenty-two indirect fire attacks a month were conducted by special groups on U.S. bases. The attacks usually entailed 107-millimeter rockets fired singly or in pairs, though Iranian-made 122-millimeter rockets are increasingly launched from improvised multiple rocket-launcher trucks in salvos of as many as sixteen to twenty. Very large Iranian-made 240-millimeter rockets are also used occasionally, as are improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs).”
“The Revolutionary Guard has smuggled rocket-assisted exploding projectiles to its militia allies in Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011, “weapons that have already resulted in the deaths of American troops, defense officials said.” The push was reportedly part of a bid by the Quds Force to “accelerate the U.S. withdrawals” from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
By 2015, the Defense Department was willing to specify a death toll for Iran’s activity in Iraq.
“I know the total number of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that were killed by Iranian activities, and the number has been recently reported as about 500,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in July of that year. “We were not always able to attribute the casualties that we had to Iranian activity, although many times we suspected it was Iranian activity, even though we did not necessarily have the forensics to support that.”
In a briefing last year, the Defense Department adjusted that number upward.
“In Iraq, I can announce today, based on declassified U.S. military reports, that Iran is responsible for the deaths of at least 608 American service members,” said Brian Hook, special representative for Iran. “This accounts for 17 percent of all deaths of U.S. personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. This death toll is in addition to the many thousands of Iraqis killed by the IRGC’s proxies,” he said, referring to the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps.
Notice that at the time the attribution was to Iran broadly. In the wake of Soleimani’s death, though, he has been identified as the driving force behind those attacks, given his prominent position within the Iranian military infrastructure.
In 2008 at least, he was apparently happy to take the credit.