‘In­for­mants in Iraq, Syria helped US kill Soleimani’

The Punch - - NEWS | WORLD NEWS -

IRA­NIAN Gen­eral Qassem Soleimani ar­rived at the Damascus air­port in a ve­hi­cle with dark-tinted glass. Four sol­diers from Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards rode with him. They parked near a stair­case lead­ing to a Cham Wings Air­bus A320, des­tined for Bagh­dad, Reuters re­ports.

Nei­ther Soleimani nor the sol­diers were reg­is­tered on the pas­sen­ger man­i­festo, ac­cord­ing to a Cham Wings air­line em­ployee who de­scribed the scene of their de­par­ture from the syr­ian cap­i­tal to Reuters. Soleimani avoided us­ing his pri­vate plane be­cause of ris­ing con­cerns about his own se­cu­rity, said an Iraqi se­cu­rity source with knowl­edge of Soleimani’s se­cu­rity ar­range­ments.

The pas­sen­ger flight would be Soleimani’s last. Rock­ets fired from a U.S. drone killed him as he left the Bagh­dad air­port in a con­voy of two ar­mored ve­hi­cles. Also killed was the man who met him at the air­port: Abu Mahdi Muhan­dis, deputy head of Iraq’s Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces (PMF), the Iraqi govern­ment’s um­brella group for the coun­try’s mili­tias.

The Iraqi in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the strikes that killed the two men on Jan. 3 started min­utes af­ter the U.S. strike, two Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials told Reuters. Na­tional Se­cu­rity agents sealed off the air­port and pre­vented dozens of se­cu­rity staff from leav­ing, in­clud­ing po­lice, pass­port of­fi­cers and in­tel­li­gence agents.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have fo­cused on how sus­pected in­for­mants in­side the Damascus and Bagh­dad air­ports col­lab­o­rated with the U.S. mil­i­tary to help track and pin­point Soleimani’s po­si­tion, ac­cord­ing to Reuters in­ter­views with two se­cu­rity of­fi­cials with di­rect knowl­edge of Iraq’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, two Bagh­dad air­port em­ploy­ees, two po­lice of­fi­cials and two em­ploy­ees of Syria’s Cham Wings Air­lines, a pri­vate com­mer­cial air­line head­quar­tered in Damascus.

The probe is be­ing led by Falih al-fayadh, who serves as Iraq’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser and the head of the PMF, the body that co­or­di­nates with Iraq’s mostly Shi’ite mili­tias, many of which are backed by Iran and had close ties to Soleimani.

The Na­tional Se­cu­rity agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors have “strong in­di­ca­tions that a net­work of spies in­side Bagh­dad Air­port were in­volved in leak­ing sen­si­tive se­cu­rity de­tails” on Soleimani’s ar­rival to the United States, one of the Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials told Reuters.

The sus­pects in­clude two se­cu­rity staffers at the Bagh­dad air­port and two Cham Wings em­ploy­ees - “a spy at the Damascus air­port and an­other one work­ing on board the air­plane,” the source said. The Na­tional Se­cu­rity agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve the four sus­pects, who have not been ar­rested, worked as part of a wider group of peo­ple feed­ing in­for­ma­tion to the U.S. mil­i­tary, the of­fi­cial said.

The two em­ploy­ees of Cham Wings are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Syr­ian in­tel­li­gence, the two Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said. The Syr­ian Gen­eral In­tel­li­gence Di­rec­torate did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. In Bagh­dad, Na­tional Se­cu­rity agents are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the two air­port se­cu­rity work­ers, who are part of the na­tion’s Fa­cil­ity Pro­tec­tion Ser­vice, one of the Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said.

“Ini­tial find­ings of the Bagh­dad in­ves­ti­ga­tion team sug­gest that the first tip on Soleimani came from Damascus air­port,” the of­fi­cial said. “The job of the Bagh­dad air­port cell was to con­firm the ar­rival of the tar­get and de­tails of his con­voy.”

The me­dia of­fice of Iraq’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity agency did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. The Iraq mis­sion to the United Na­tions in New York did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The U.S. Depart­ment of De­fense de­clined to com­ment on whether in­for­mants in Iraq and Syria played a role in the at­tacks. U.S. of­fi­cials, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity, told Reuters the United States had been closely track­ing Soleimani’s move­ments for days prior to the strike but de­clined to say how the mil­i­tary pin­pointed his lo­ca­tion the night of the at­tack.

A Cham Wings man­ager in Damascus said air­line em­ploy­ees were pro­hib­ited from com­ment­ing on the at­tack or in­ves­ti­ga­tion. A spokesman for Iraq’s Civil Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity, which op­er­ates the na­tion’s air­ports, de­clined to com­ment on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion but called it rou­tine af­ter “such in­ci­dents which in­clude high­pro­file of­fi­cials.”

Soleimani’s plane landed at the Bagh­dad air­port at about 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 3, ac­cord­ing to two air­port of­fi­cials, cit­ing footage from its se­cu­rity cam­eras. The gen­eral and his guards ex­ited the plane on a stair­case di­rectly to the tar­mac, by­pass­ing cus­toms. Muhan­dis met him out­side the plane, and the two men stepped into a wait­ing ar­mored ve­hi­cle. The sol­diers guard­ing the gen­eral piled into an­other ar­mored SUV, the air­port of­fi­cials said.

As air­port se­cu­rity of­fi­cers looked on, the two ve­hi­cles headed down the main road lead­ing out of the air­port, the of­fi­cials said. The first two U.S. rock­ets struck the ve­hi­cle car­ry­ing Soleimani and Muhan­dis at 12:55 a.m. The SUV car­ry­ing his se­cu­rity was hit sec­onds later.

As com­man­der of the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards’ elite Quds force, Soleimani ran clan­des­tine op­er­a­tions in for­eign coun­tries and was a key fig­ure in Iran’s long­stand­ing cam­paign to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. He spent years run­ning covert op­er­a­tions and cul­ti­vat­ing mili­tia lead­ers in Iraq to ex­tend Iran’s in­flu­ence and fight the in­ter­ests of the United States.

Reuters re­ported on Satur­day that, start­ing in Oc­to­ber, Soleimani had se­cretly launched stepped-up at­tacks on U.S. forces sta­tioned in Iraq and equipped Iraqi mili­tias with so­phis­ti­cated weaponry to carry them out.

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