Early Friday, the U.S. military launched a drone attack in Iraq that killed Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. The attack has sparked fears of a counterattack by Iran against Americans and American interests abroad and in the United States.

White House reporter Anne Gearan and Middle East reporter Miriam Berger answered readers’ questions about Soleimani, the attack that killed him and what it means for the future.

Read more Q&As with reporters: What’s Putin’s reaction?

WHO WAS SOLEIMANI?

Q. What was Qasem Soleimani’s impact on the fight against ISIS?

— Ahmed J.

A. Major. He directed Iran’s irregular military efforts against the Islamic State, making him for a time an uneasy partner with U.S.-led efforts. There was never any formal alliance, of course, but the Quds Force and U.S. forces were seeking the same goal — pushing the Islamic State out of territory it had captured in Iraq and Syria. Iran has also protected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while U.S. policy is that Assad is an illegitimate leader. — Anne Gearan

Q. Who are the members of the Quds Force? Are they local fighters or Iranian mercenaries?

— Charles A.

A. The Quds Force is an elite unit of fighters and operatives within the already elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. It’s estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 members are tasked with carrying out missions abroad and other intelligence-gathering missions. They also support Iran’s proxy militias abroad, such as Hezbollah in Iran and Shiite militias in Iran, among others. The Quds Force is made up of Iranians mainly chosen because of their skills and allegiance to the Islamic revolution. — Miriam Berger

Q. Who will replace Soleimani, and what is that person’s background?

— A. Hose

A. Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Gen. Ismail Qaani, as the slain commander’s replacement and vowed that the Quds Force will carry on as before. Like Soleimani, Qaani is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988. From there, he rose in the ranks to become the deputy commander of the Quds Force. In another similarity with Soleimani, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Qaani in 2012 for his support of Iran’s allies in the region. Unlike Soleimani, Qaani does not have a cultlike aura surrounding him. — M.B.


HOW DID THE ATTACK PLAY OUT?

Q. Why was Soleimani in Baghdad? Does the Iraqi government regularly countenance the presence of destabilizing elements in the country, traveling back and forth without restriction? Was he traveling as a diplomatic representative of the Iranian regime?

— Dan G.

A. Soleimani had flown into Baghdad for meetings, but we do not know for certain exactly what he was there to discuss. U.S. officials have claimed he was planning attacks against American troops and diplomats in Iraq. Soleimani was killed along with an Iraqi and pro-Iranian Shiite militia leader, known by the nickname Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who founded the group Kataib Hezbollah that the United States hit with airstrikes last weekend in Iraq — and whose supporters then stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iraq on Tuesday. It was not uncommon for Soleimani to travel to Iraq — it was basically part of his job as the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, which oversees military operations abroad for the Revolutionary Guard. As part of this work, Soleimani reported directly to Khamenei and was tasked with developing and managing Iran’s proxy militias and political relationships abroad. The Iraqi government, set up in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, is by design sectarian: Over the years, Soleimani has cultivated close relationships with many Shiite politicians, along with militias, in Iraq as part of Iran’s regional strategy. — M.B.

Q. What ordnance was used to carry out the attack? Was it a smart bomb launched from an aircraft? A cruise missile?

— Marc B.

A. A U.S. official has said the attack was carried out from an unpiloted aircraft, or drone. That would mean that one or more shorter-range missiles were fired from the air, but we do not yet know the type of missiles or how far away the drone was at the time. Presumably the drone was in Iraqi airspace. — A.G.


WHY DID TRUMP APPROVE THE ATTACK? WAS IT LEGAL?

Q. Was the strike necessary or was Trump trying to detract from his impeachment woes?

— W. Harvey

A. We can’t fully assess whether the strike was necessary right now, because we don’t know a great deal about the intelligence that the administration says it assessed before carrying out the strike. The administration said it was necessary because of the imminent threat of new violence directed by Soleimani. Trump may be seeking ways to distract from impeachment, but the question of whether he was justified in choosing this exact moment to kill Soleimani is murky. The attack that killed a U.S. contractor a week ago was the first event in this sequence that led to the U.S. attack early Friday, and the White House points to it in blaming Iran for starting the fight. — A.G.

Q. Does the president have to consult Congress before acting against an individual or country that poses an imminent danger (i.e. actually attacking U.S. citizens), or is consultation with Congress just good management and leadership? What does the law say in these cases?

— D.F.

A. No, the president is not legally bound to consult with Congress when an act of national defense is deemed an emergency. Congress is given the constitutional power to declare war, but no U.S. wars have been congressionally “declared” for decades. Instead, the president is given leeway to conduct warlike actions that everyone calls a war but that Congress doesn’t have to endorse with a vote. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), among others, has railed against this for years, essentially calling it a usurpation of power by the White House and an act of cowardice on the part of Congress. Past presidents have almost always found it prudent to consult with or inform at least a small group of national security leaders in Congress. — A.G.

Q. Is there a consensus among military scholars that Iran can legitimately argue the Soleimani assassination is an “act of war?”

— Tim M.

A. There is not consensus, but many scholars voicing opinions today about the law of warfare do categorize this an act of war. The White House says this was preventive, which is a defense against the charge that the killing violated international law. On its face, the act was a hostile one and thus potentially warlike: A foreign government figure was targeted off the battlefield. The Trump administration will probably argue that Soleimani was indeed “on the battlefield,” because he was arriving in Iraq from Syria and, they claim, planning new attacks in U.S. interests. — A.G.


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Q. How would the military capabilities of Iran now compare with those of Iraq, pre-invasion? In recent history, are there any examples of the United States taking similar actions against an agent of a country that has a military with similar capabilities to those of Iran?

— Ryan S.

A. Iran has the second-best military in the Middle East. The best is Israel’s, and not by coincidence. Iran is wealthy despite U.S. sanctions and has an effective, multilayered military system with regular and irregular forces, plus proxy militias in several countries or territories. Iran’s military is generally considered to be much better than it was before the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and more modern and disciplined than Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in 2003. Trump has said Iran should not try to start a war, because it would lose quickly, but there is little doubt that Iran could do a great deal of damage to U.S. forces or allies. As to U.S. examples, I can’t think of any. The United States has carried out targeted killings of individual terrorist leaders, but those were not government officials. It’s worth noting that the United States did engineer the overthrow of Iran’s elected prime minister in 1953, though it didn’t kill him. — A.G.