Tom Vanden Brook - USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – For years, the U.S. military kept close tabs on Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Every day. Whom he met. What he planned. The mayhem he plotted.
Until Thursday, it had held its fire.
Soleimani had overseen a network of paramilitaries, militias and terrorist groups across the Middle East and beyond that furthered Iranian interests by often undermining those of the United States and its allies. The Pentagon, for instance, had linked him to the introduction into Iraq of sophisticated roadside bombs that killed hundreds of U.S. troops and wounded thousands more during the peak of fighting there in the mid-2000s.
Still, the Pentagon did not attack, believing there were less volatile ways of preventing violence against U.S. interests.
That changed after months of rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and the Dec. 27 death of an American contractor, culminating in a fiery and fatal U.S. drone strike on Soleimani's vehicle as it left Baghdad International Airport on Thursday.
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On Friday, the Pentagon, State Department and the White House pointed to imminent attacks that Soleimani had been orchestrating as the reason. The Pentagon also attributed last year's missile attacks in Iraq and the contractor's death to him.
Trump authorized the strike after the recent attacks, and military planners looked for an opportunity to kill Soleimani while limiting civilian casualties, according to a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Soleimani's death will disrupt planning for future attacks, the official said.
Alyssa Farah, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement late Friday that Pentagon and intelligence officials briefing Congress after the strike told members the intent was to deter Iran.
"Briefers also emphasized that we do not seek escalation with Iran, and have taken appropriate measures to ensure the safety and security of U.S. citizens, forces, partners and interests in the region," Farah said.
Risk of retaliation greater than value
Three former officials said the risk of retaliation from Iran had outweighed the value in killing Soleimani, or that there were more effective ways of preventing attacks on U.S. interests.
“I don’t ever recall discussions on taking out Soleimani,” said Chuck Hagel, who served as Defense secretary in the Obama administration and was a former Republican senator from Nebraska. “This is very risky. We have initiated something here, but I’m not sure the president and his administration understand what they’ve set in motion."
For years during the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, officials had briefed the U.S. commander in the region daily on Soleimani's whereabouts, according to a former senior military officer who discussed intelligence matters on condition of anonymity.
Military planners sought to determine whether he was planning attacks or fomenting anti-American sentiment among local groups, the former officer said. But commanders did not consider a lethal strike on Soleimani, the former official said, because of concerns that killing a senior Iranian official could lead to a wider confrontation, or targeted attacks on American generals.
Moreover, the decision to target a terrorist leader initiated a painstaking process to game out potential responses and how to protect U.S. personnel from retaliatory attacks, the former official said.
Iran, unlike regional terror groups, has the capability to strike targets around the world, including embassies and mass transportation systems. The risks outweighed the benefits, the former officer said.
Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and Defense secretary in the Obama administration, said Soleimani had not been targeted during his tenure. Killing Osama bin Laden had been the top priority, he said. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a raid in 2011.
If the Pentagon wants to prevent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, then it should target forces that conducted them, Panetta said. Last week, the Air Force did carry out strikes on the militias in Iraq and Syria that had been blamed for rocket attacks on U.S. bases. Iran said the U.S. also launched a strike against militia Friday night, a day after targeting Soleimani.
Attacking an individual will not necessarily prevent attacks that have been planned, Panetta said. But Soleimani's killing virtually guarantees a tit-for-tat response from Iran.
"I don’t think there’s any question Iran is looking at conducting some type of attack that will make clear it was a response to Soleimani," Panetta said. "That’s the way they think."
Soleimani's death a 'blow to the Iranian psyche'
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Quantock, the former director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command, said the Iranian regime is likely to lash out in several ways after the killing of Soleimani. He was a national hero in Iran, and his death is a “blow to the Iranian psyche.”
Thousands jammed streets in Iran in an outpouring of support for Soleimani.
The Iranians generally are deliberate in formulating attacks but may move more quickly in light of Soleimani’s prominence, Quantock said.
Attacks by Iranian surrogates, such as the militias in Iraq aligned and supported by Iran, are likely to occur first, he said. Those groups had viewed Soleimani as “their guy,” Quantock said.
U.S. and coalition embassies throughout the Middle East will also be potential targets. In the Persian Gulf, Iranian Republican Guard fast boats could make provocative runs at U.S. Navy vessels, seeking to draw fire and be seen as victims.
Hagel predicted a rough winter and spring with no resolution in sight.
"I don’t see any good news coming," Hagel said. "I think we’re in for a very difficult road over the next few months. I don’t see any off ramping of this. How do we get out of this?"