Seven Days When Fate Of US And Iran Was Decided
The plane was late and the kill team was worried. International listings showed that Cham Wings Airlines Flight 6Q501, scheduled to take off from Damascus, Syria, at 7:30 pm for Baghdad, had departed; but in fact, an informant at the airport reported, it was still on the ground, and the targeted passenger had not yet shown up.
The hours ticked by, and some involved in the operation wondered if it should be called off. Then, just before the plane door closed, a convoy of cars pulled up on the tarmac carrying Gen Qassem Soleimani, Iran's security mastermind, who climbed on board along with two escorts. Flight 6Q501 lifted off, three hours late, bound for the Iraqi capital.
The plane landed at Baghdad International Airport just after midnight, at 12:36 am, and the first to disembark were Soleimani and his entourage. Waiting at the bottom of the gangway was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi official in charge of militias and close to Iran. Two cars carrying the group headed into the night - shadowed by American MQ-9 Reaper drones. At 12:47, the first of several missiles smashed into the vehicles, engulfing them in flames and leaving 10 charred bodies inside.
The operation that took out Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, propelled the United States to the precipice of war with Iran and plunged the world into seven days of roiling uncertainty. The story of those seven days, and the secret planning in the months preceding them, ranks as the most perilous chapter so far in President Donald Trump's three years in office.
The president's decision to ratchet up decades of simmering conflict with Iran set off an extraordinary worldwide drama, much of which played out behind the scenes. In capitals from Europe to the Middle East, leaders and diplomats sought to head off a full-fledged new war, while at the White House and Pentagon, the president and his advisers ordered more troops to the region.
European leaders, incensed at being kept in the dark, scrambled to keep Iran from escalating. If it did, Americans developed plans to strike a command-and-control ship and conduct a cyberattack to partly disable Iran's oil and gas sector.
But the United States also sent secret messages through Swiss intermediaries urging Iran not to respond so forcefully that Trump would feel compelled to go even further. After Iran did respond - firing 16 missiles at bases housing US troops without hurting anyone, as a relatively harmless show of force - a message came back through the Swiss saying that would be the end of its reprisal for now. The message, forwarded to Washington within five minutes after it was received, persuaded the president to stand down.
When the week ended without the war many feared, Trump boasted that he had taken out a US enemy. But the struggle between two nations is not really over. Iran may find other ways to take revenge. Iraqi leaders may expel U.S. forces, accomplishing in death what Soleimani tried and failed to do in life.
The episode briefly gave Trump's allies something to cheer, distracting from the coming Senate impeachment trial, but now Trump faces questions even among Republicans about the shifting justifications for the strike that he and his national security team have offered. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially cited the need to forestall an "imminent" attack, and the president has amplified that to say four US embassies were targeted.
But administration officials said they did not actually know when or where such an attack might occur. And some Pentagon officials were stunned that Trump picked what they considered a radical option with unforeseen consequences.
This account - based on interviews with dozens of Trump administration officials, military officers, diplomats, intelligence analysts and others in the United States, Europe and the Middle East - offers new details about what may be the most consequential seven days of the Trump presidency.
The confrontation may have actually begun by accident. For years, Iran has sponsored proxy forces in Iraq, competing for influence with US troops who first arrived in the invasion of 2003. Starting last fall, Iranian-backed militias launched rockets at Iraqi bases that house US troops, shattering nerves more than doing much damage.
So when rockets smashed into the K1 military base near Kirkuk on Dec 27, killing an American civilian contractor, Nawres Waleed Hamid, and injuring several others, the only surprise was the casualties. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia group held responsible, had fired at least five other rocket attacks on bases with Americans in the previous month without deadly results.
US intelligence officials monitoring communications between Hezbollah and Soleimani's Guard learned that the Iranians wanted to keep the pressure on the Americans but had not intended to escalate the low-level conflict. The rockets landed in a place and at a time when US and Iraqi personnel normally were not there, and it was only by unlucky chance that Hamid was killed, US officials said.
But that did not matter to Trump and his team. An American was dead, and the president who had called off a retaliatory strike with 10 minutes to go in June and otherwise refrained from military action in response to Iranian provocations now faced a choice.
Advisers told him Iran had probably misinterpreted his previous reluctance to use force as a sign of weakness. To reestablish deterrence, he should authorize a tough response. The president agreed to strikes on five sites in Iraq and Syria two days later, killing at least 25 members of pro-Iranian militia and injuring at least 50 more.
Two days later, on Dec 31, pro-Iranian protesters backed by many members of the same militia responded by breaking into the US Embassy compound in Baghdad and setting fires. Worried about repeats of the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran or the 2012 attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, Trump and his team ordered more than 100 Marines to rush to Baghdad from Kuwait.
Still, Trump grew agitated and ready to authorize a more robust response. And Dec 31, even as protests were beginning, a top secret memo began circulating, signed by Robert O'Brien, his national security adviser, listing potential targets, including an Iranian energy facility and a command-and-control ship used by the Guard to direct small boats that harass oil tankers in the waters around Iran. The ship had been an irritant to Americans for months, especially after a series of covert attacks on oil tankers.
The memo also listed a more provocative option: targeting specific Iranian officials for death by military strike. Among the targets mentioned, according to officials who saw it, was Soleimani.
(The story was prepared by Peter Baker, Ronen Bergman, David D. Kirkpatrick, Julian E. Barnes and Alissa J. Rubin for The New York Times)