U.S. kills Iran's ‘celebrity soldier’; Trump ordered Ukraine aid held; Navy’s unmanned ships; Libya’s airport under fire; And a bit more.

The U.S. military killed Iran's “celebrity soldier,” Qassem Soleimani, along with Iraqi militia commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in an air attack Thursday on an access road near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. "Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon," a senior Iraqi security official told the Associated Press. "The blast tore his body to pieces along with that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis." (Find purported footage of the strike here.)

U.S. officials claim it happened in a drone strike, while Iranian officials say it happened in a helicopter attack, Reuters reports today. However it occurred, many analysts agreed the decision to kill Soleimani could be the most significant thing to happen in the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — which is to say, bigger than the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and much bigger than the death of Osama bin Laden.

Get a better sense of how Soleimani’s Iranian influence networks extended across the Middle East in this (charitably free) analysis from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

How the Pentagon framed the action in a Thursday evening statement to reporters (emphasis added): “At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months — including the attack on December 27th — culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week.”

Much more after the jump.

From Defense One

Iran’s Soleimani Killed in Trump-Ordered Airstrike / Kevin Baron: The stunning killing of the Quds Force leader follows Iranian-backed militia attacks on U.S. embassy in Iraq, and months of Tehran testing Washington’s stomach for violence.

Iran Loses Its Indispensable Man / Andrew Exum, The Atlantic: The killing of Qassem Soleimani robs the regime of the central figure for its ambitions in the Middle East.

What US Intelligence Thought 2020 Would Look Like // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: A 2004 National Intelligence Council report was eerily prescient in some ways, and totally off in others.

Best of 2019: Politics // Katie Bo Williams: A look back at some of the top political stories of the year.

A Bigger Foreign-Policy Mess Than Anyone Predicted // Thomas Wright, The Atlantic: In the 2010s, global affairs turned out far worse than the most pessimistic scenario foretold by U.S. intelligence experts.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day 30 years ago, Panama’s Manuel Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces in Operation Just Cause.

Back to Iran news: In case you’re wondering, “The president has broad self-defense powers,” tweeted former DoD lawyer Jack Goldsmith, and so “legal arguments are a distraction from what is going on here, since law has very little if anything to do with it.”
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted the following message just before 9 a.m. ET: “General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more...but got caught! He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself. While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!”
Reax from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, via Twitter: "[Soleimani’s] efforts & path won’t be stopped by his martyrdom, by God’s Power, rather a #SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night. Martyr Soleimani is an Intl figure of Resistance & all such people will seek revenge. All friends—& enemies—know that Jihad of Resistance will continue with more motivation & definite victory awaits the fighters on this blessed path. The loss of our dear General is bitter. The continuing fight & ultimate victory will be more bitter for the murderers & criminals.”
Condemning the assassination: Russia, Turkey and Iraq, the BBC reports. Iraq's parliamentary Speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi even went so far as to call it "a breach [of] Iraq's sovereignty and a violation of international agreements."
A bit more worried after news of the strike (but not necessarily because of the strike): North Korean state-run media, which warned this morning, “Any act that infringes on the republic’s dignity and survival must be met by an immediate and powerful strike.”
A big fan of Soleimani’s death: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Trump "deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively." Reuters has more reactions from around the globe, here. AP has more from domestic U.S. responses, here.
"None of us who work on Iraq closely ever anticipated a scenario without [Soleimani]," said Mosul-born Iraq analyst Rasha Al Aqeedi. “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” added former Vice President Joe Biden in an evening statement.
Now what? “For starters, the US will have to leave Syria soon,” said Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, “and the [U.S. military’s] Iraq presence is likely on its way out too.” To that end, Reuters reports “The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately,” and U.S. oil workers in the southern region around Basra are departing with a quickness, too.
Back stateside, the U.S. should brace for a cyber response from Tehran, warns former NATO commander retired Adm. Jim Stravridis, writing today in Bloomberg.
Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a call for restraint and discipline among militias in Iraq — militias that, he said, must stand ready to defend Iraq, Reuters reports separately. Read a fuller analysis of Sadr’s remarks via Syrian-born Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan this morning, here
The new IRGC chief will be Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani (also spelled Ismail Ghani), according to a tweet from Khamenei. Ghaani is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and has been active in the Quds Force for years, including in Syria, Narges Bajoghli of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies tweeted this morning.
Impact on gas prices? The Wall Street Journal charted the assassination’s impact on oil prices and global stocks. The short read: "Brent crude gained as much as 4.2%, hitting an eight-month high at $69.01," while "In the U.S., a recent stock rally came to a halt, with all three major indexes falling sharply after the opening bell." More behind the paywall, here. Or read AP’s oil market analysis, here.

President Trump himself ordered Ukraine aid held, newly obtained documents reveal. “Thanks to the testimony of several Trump administration officials, we now know what Trump was waiting on: a commitment from Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. But getting at that truth hasn’t been easy and the Trump administration continues to try to obscure it,” writes Kate Brannen at Just Security. “Last month, a court ordered the government to release almost 300 pages of emails to the Center for Public Integrity in response to a FOIA lawsuit...Since then, Just Security has viewed unredacted copies of these emails, which begin in June and end in early October. Together, they tell the behind-the-scenes story of the defense and budget officials who had to carry out the president’s unexplained hold on military aid to Ukraine.” Read on, here.

The U.S. Navy wants operating concepts for unmanned ships. Last month, Congress granted the fleet’s request for two “large unmanned surface vehicles”; now Fleet Forces Command has “ordered the service’s surface force to develop a concept of operations for both the large and medium unmanned surface vessels in development, according to a Dec. 19 message obtained by Defense News.”
Context: “The message comes after a long battle with Congress over funding for unmanned surface combatants, during which lawmakers expressed skepticism that the Navy was knowledgeable enough about the technology for which it was seeking funding. Ultimately Congress appropriated funds for the Navy to buy two large unmanned surface vessels, but lawmakers forbade the service from equipping the vessels with vertical launch tubes, as the Navy intended.” Read on, here.

Libyans fear a dangerous new escalation now that the only functioning airport in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli has suspended flights due to rocket fire and shelling, Reuters reports on location. 

Have a safe weekend, everyone; and we’ll see you again on Monday!