The Early Edition: January 3, 2020

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.  

IRAN-IRAQ

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, was killed yesterday in a targeted U.S. airstrike at Baghdad airport. The Pentagon confirmed the military operation, which came “at the direction of the president” and was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” and claimed in a statement that Gen. Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” The airstrike came just days after supporters of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, itself a reprisal for U.S. strikes on the militia in Iraq and Syria. Mustafa Salim, Missy Ryan, Liz Sly and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

The Pentagon said Gen. Soleimani and his Quds Force, the military unit responsible for projecting Iran’s influence via proxies across the Middle East, “were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members, and the wounding of thousands more.” The Pentagon also blamed the Iranian general for orchestrating attacks on coalition bases in Iraq in recent months, including an attack on Dec. 27 that resulted in the deaths of an American contractor and Iraqi personnel. Michael Crowley, Falih Hassan and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Gen. Soleimani, was also killed in the attack. AP reporting.

The U.S. airstrike marks a major escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death, saying “the resistance movement will continue with double motivations.” In a message sent on Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the strike an “act of international terrorism” and warned the U.S. it was “extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation” of Trump’s growing confrontation with Tehran. Isabel Coles, Ghassan Adnan and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also vowed retaliation for the Iranian general’s death, writing in a message sent on Twitter early today that “Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.” Rouhani pledged that his country will continue to fight against “terrorism and extremism.” Anna Kaplan reports at The Daily Beast.

The deputy commander of the Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, was appointed today by Khamenei as the replacement head of the elite Quds Force, state media reported. Iran’s supreme leader said in a statement that the force’s agenda “will be unchanged from the time of his predecessor.” Reuters reporting.

Trump’s decision to order the U.S. airstrike drew swift reaction from congressional leaders, with responses largely falling along partisan lines, giving new flame to a debate over whether Congress should trim the president’s war powers. Catie Edmondson reports at the New York Times.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged the administration to “immediately” brief lawmakers on the U.S. killing of Gen. Soleimani, saying in a statement that the operation was carried out “without the consultation of Congress” and without an “authorization for use of military force” against Iran. Phil Helsel reports at NBC News.

The strikes followed a warning yesterday afternoon from Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said the U.S. was prepared to take pre-emptive action against Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were signs the paramilitary groups were planning additional attacks against American bases and personnel in the region. Reuters reporting. 

Who was Qassem Suleimani? Michael Safi provides some clarity on the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, one of the most infamous military operators in the Middle East, at The Guardian.

An expert analysis of the kinds of questions raised by the U.S. strike killing Gen. Soleimani is provided by Brian Egan and Tess Bridgeman at Just Security.

A look at how the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran developed over the last eight days is provided by Sarah Almukhtar, Falih Hassan, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Lauren Leatherby, Allison McCann, Anjali Singhvi and Jin Wu at the New York Times.

The significance of the killing of Soleimani “cannot be overstated,” Peter Bergen argues at CNN, shedding light on the commander’s role in Iran’s military operations across the Middle East.

Live updates are available at CNN and Al Jazeera.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Unredacted emails published yesterday by Just Security bolster the case that President Trump was directly involved in withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine as he was seeking investigations that could benefit him politically. The emails, previously released in redacted form, showed that there was serious concern within the Pentagon about the legality and sustainability of the freeze. Despite these worries, there was “clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold,” according to an Aug. 30 email from Michael Duffey, top Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) official, to Elaine McCusker, the acting Pentagon comptroller. Kate Brannen reports in an exclusive at Just Security.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the emails “a devastating blow to Senator McConnell’s push to have a trial without the documents and witnesses we’ve requested.” Schumer said the new documents raise questions that can only be answered by key Trump administration officials — namely, Duffey, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton and top national security aide Robert Blair. Schumer urged all four to testify about the allegations in a Senate trial. John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also highlighted the report as evidence of the need to uncover more and slammed the White House for not releasing the emails during the impeachment inquiry. “Trump engaged in unprecedented, total obstruction of Congress, hiding these emails, all other documents, and his top aides from the American people … his excuse was a phony complaint about the House process … what’s the excuse now?” the speaker said in a message sent on Twitter. Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC News.

The new emails “reflect deep tension” between the O.M.B. and McCusker, who repeatedly raised concerns about the potential illegality of the hold, Andrew Restuccia reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The [Just Security] story suggests that there could be new and damning bombshells in piles of official evidence that the President has refused to hand over to the House investigation,” Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN, adding, the report “offers a rationale why the White House might be keen to get the Senate trial over quickly before even more damaging evidence emerges.”

“Many of the redaction choices are puzzling and even suspicious,” Aaron Blake comments at the Washington Post, noting that the reasons for the redacted parts “aren’t terribly clear and raise all kinds of questions.”

LIBYA

Turkey’s parliament yesterday approved plans to send military forces to Libya to back the Tripoli-based government in the country’s worsening civil war. A bill approved during an emergency parliamentary session gives Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan full authority over the coming 12 months to decide on the scope and exact assignments of any troop deployment to Libya. Peter Beaumont reports at The Guardian.

In a phone call with Erdoğan, President Trump warned against any “foreign interference” in Libya, after Ankara authorized a motion that allows troops to be deployed to the oil-rich North African state, according to the White House. “President Trump pointed out that foreign interference is complicating the situation in Libya … the leaders agreed on the need for de-escalation in Idlib, Syria, in order to protect civilians,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. Katrina Manson, Laura Pitel and Heba Saleh report at the Financial Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

President Trump is considering a pardon for one of the Blackwater contractors, Nicholas Slatten, convicted of murder for his role in killing one of 14 unarmed Iraqi citizens in the Sept. 16, 2007 shooting, long considered one of the lowest points of the Iraq war. Asawin Suebsaeng and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

The United States will expand the scope of its controversial Migrant Protection Protocols program that returns non-Mexican migrants and asylum seekers crossing Mexico’s border to that country to await their U.S. court hearings, the Department of Homeland Security said yesterday. Michelle Hackman and Alicia A. Caldwell report at the Wall Street Journal.

Larry Hopkins, the leader of a small right-wing militia accused of illegally detaining immigrants and asylum seekers as they crossed the southern border, pleaded guilty yesterday to federal weapons charges in U.S. District court in New Mexico. Reuters reporting.

William Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine and a key impeachment inquiry witness, has departed his post and officially been replaced. The embassy announced in a message sent on Twitter yesterday that Kristina Kvien, who was serving as deputy chief of mission, has taken over Taylor’s role. Rachel Frrazin reports at the Hill.

At least 109 pro-government forces and 11 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi report in a casualty report at the New York Times.

“The United States is in a worse position now than two years ago, as North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program while the Trump administration has halted some joint military exercises with South Korea and the international sanctions regime assembled in 2017 has been weakened,” David Nakamura reports on what analysts have said at the Washington Post. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).