On 3 January 2020, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Baghdad that targeted and killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF), and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), commander of the Iranian-sponsored militia group Kataeb Hizballah (KH) and former member of the Iraqi parliament. The attack occurred near Baghdad International Airport (ORBI/BGW) and targeted the two as they were leaving the facility. Soleimani was a key liaison between the Iranian government and Iranian proxy groups in Iraq and around the region. The U.S. government designated al-Muhandis as a foreign terrorist in 2009, due to his role in attacks on U.S. forces during the Iraqi insurgency from 2003-2006. Five other individuals were also killed in the attack, but they have as yet to be identified.

Iranian and Iraqi government officials quickly condemned the attack, with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi calling the targeting of al-Muhandis an “act of aggression” against the Iraqi government. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini promised retaliation in response to Soleimani’s assassination. Following the attack, U.S. forces in Bahrain put Patriot missile batteries on alert in anticipation of possible Iranian missile attacks, and Israeli forces are also on alert for possible missile attacks from southern Lebanon and southern Syria.

The Dutch government advised its citizens to leave Iraq as soon as possible, while the U.S. government reiterated its prior Travel Advisory, urging citizens to depart the country as soon as possible; the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also declared the suspension of all consular operations until further notice. Additionally, Royal Jordanian Airways announced it was suspending all flights to and from Baghdad International Airport until further notice, citing security concerns. The airline previously had 18 scheduled flights per week out of the Baghdad airport, and the suspension is likely to severely impact air travel to and from Baghdad.

Analyst Comment: This incident is likely to have serious immediate repercussions within the region. The likelihood of violent protests occurring is very high, as are Iranian-linked attacks against U.S. interests in Baghdad and the surrounding areas within the next 24-72 hours. U.S. commercial interests — including oil fields in the southern city of Basra and in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq — are likely targets for protests and retaliatory terrorist attacks. The killing of Qassem Soleimani represents a significant escalation of what had been a relatively contained proxy war between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq. It is also possible that there will be direct strikes on U.S. official, military and commercial interests not only in Iraq, but throughout the region as well, to include a high likelihood for spontaneous protests against U.S. interests across the region.

Individuals present in Iraq should avoid the vicinity of Baghdad to the extent possible; if already in the area, consider sheltering in place until the situation stabilizes. All travel to Iraq should be postponed until further notice. Companies with assets and personnel in oil-producing areas of Iraq should increase their security measures and limit personnel movement to the extent necessary for business operations. Individuals present in Iraq should avoid hotels or Western-linked facilities, including all diplomatic missions. The consequences of this event may not be limited to U.S. interests alone. Additionally, the Iraqi government may intermittently close roads, impose curfews and/or restrict airport operations. As such, travelers should limit ground travel to only that which is essential and should ascertain whether their planned routes are open and safe before undertaking travel.