On January 3, soon after Iranian General Qassem Soleimani left Baghdad airport in an armoured vehicle, a US drone fired rockets at his convoy, killing the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iraqis accompanying him.
The brazen assassination sent shockwaves through the Middle East and beyond, triggering fears of an all-out war between the United States and Iran in Iraq, where the two foes compete for influence.
Iran did choose Iraqi soil to retaliate, sending a volley of missiles at two bases hosting US forces outside Baghdad and Erbil. The attacks on January 8 ended without any fatalities, however, easing worries of a regional conflagration. As the smoke clears, what is worrying observers in Iraq is the death of the powerful Shia militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same US strike targeting Soleimani.
His killing leaves the paramilitary he commanded – the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – without a clear successor, throwing the future of the 100,000-strong force into uncertainty and raising new concerns over instability in war-ravaged Iraq. The leadership vacuum is also likely to weaken Tehran’s hand in Iraq, according to experts.