A series of attacks on US military targets in Iraq late last year were part of a plan orchestrated by Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general killed in a US strike on Friday, to provoke an American response.
At a strategy meeting in mid-October, Suleimani, 62, the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, instructed his top ally in Iraq, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, and other powerful militia leaders to step up attacks on US 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 meeting was held at a villa on the banks of the Tigris River, looking across at the US embassy complex in Baghdad, and came as mass protests against the government and Iran’s growing influence in Iraq were gaining momentum.
Suleimani’s plan was to provoke a US military response that would redirect people's anger towards the United States, according to the sources, Iraqi Shiite politicians and government officials close to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The plan appeared to have worked when the US launched air strikes against the Kataib Hezbollah militia at several locations in Iraq and Syria on December 29, killing 25 people, after a rocket attack that killed a US civilian contractor at a base in Kirkuk.
Two days later, crowds attacked the US embassy and vandalised the wall and structures on its perimeter.
Ultimately, Suleimani’s efforts ended up provoking the US attack that killed him and Muhandis, the head of Kataib Hezbollah, as their convoy left Baghdad airport.
Interviews with the Iraqi security sources and Shiite militia commanders offer a rare glimpse of how Suleimani operated in Iraq, which he once told a Reuters reporter he knew like the back of his hand.
Two weeks before the October meeting, Suleimani ordered the Revolutionary Guard to move more sophisticated weapons – such as Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired missiles that could bring down helicopters – to Iraq through two border crossings.
At the Baghdad villa, the Iraqi general told the assembled Iraqi commanders to form a new militia group of low-profile paramilitaries – unknown to the US – who could carry out rocket attacks on Americans housed at Iraqi military bases.
Suleimani ordered Kataib Hezbollah – a force founded by Muhandis and trained in Iran – to direct the new plan. He told them such a group “would be difficult to detect by the Americans,” one of the militia sources told Reuters.
Even before the attacks, the US intelligence community had reason to believe that Suleimani was involved in “late stage” planning to strike Americans in several countries, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, US officials told Reuters Friday.
One senior US official said Suleimani had supplied advanced weaponry to Kataib Hezbollah.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters on Friday that Suleimani had just come from Damascus, “where he was planning attacks on American soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors and against our diplomats”.
A Revolutionary Guard official declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry was not available for comment.
The US has grown increasingly concerned about Iran's influence over the ruling elite in Iraq, which has been beset for months by protesters who accuse the government of enriching itself and serving the interests of foreign powers, especially Iran, as Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs or basic services.
Suleimani was instrumental in expanding Iran's military influence in the Middle East as the operative who handled clandestine operations outside Iran. He was regarded as the second-most powerful figure in Iran after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Muhandis, a former Iraqi MP, oversaw Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of paramilitary forces mostly consisting of Iran-backed Shiite militias that was formally integrated into Iraq’s armed forces.
Muhandis, like Suleimani, had long been on the radar of the US, which had declared him a terrorist. In 2007, a Kuwaiti court sentenced him to death in absentia for his involvement in the 1983 US and French embassy bombings in Kuwait.
Suleimani picked Kataib Hezbollah to lead the attacks on US forces in the region because it had the capability to use drones to scout targets for Katyusha rocket attacks, one of the militia commanders told Reuters.
Among the weapons that Suleimani's forces supplied to its Iraqi militia allies last fall was a drone Iran had developed that could elude radar systems, the militia commanders said.
Kataib Hezbollah used the drones to gather aerial footage of locations where US troops were deployed, according to two Iraqi security officials who monitor the movements of militias.
On December 11, a senior US military official said attacks by Iranian-backed groups on bases hosting US forces in Iraq were increasing and becoming more sophisticated, pushing all sides closer to an uncontrollable escalation.
His warning came two days after four Katyusha rockets struck a base near Baghdad international airport, wounding five members of Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack but a US military official said intelligence and forensic analyses of the rockets and launchers pointed to Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups, notably Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al Haq.
On December 27, more than 30 rockets were fired at an Iraqi military base near the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. The attack killed a US civilian contractor and wounded four American and two Iraq servicemen.
Washington accused Kataib Hezbollah of carrying out the attack, an allegation it denied. The US launched air strikes against the militia two days later, leading to the attack on its embassy.