Predictably, Democrats (and a few Republicans) have criticized President Trump’s flimsy rationale for the targeted killing of Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3. They have not, however, criticized the dubious principle that suspected terrorists can be assassinated without the slightest proof of guilt or due process, despite the fact that assassination by U.S. agents was explicitly forbidden by President Ford’s executive order 11905, subsequently ratified by Presidents Carter (EO 12036) and Reagan (EO 1233) and never repealed.
This is perhaps not surprising since President Obama employed drone strikes to kill hundreds of suspected terrorists (and many more innocent civilians), including, for example, American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and his 15-year-old son, Abdulrahman, after simply checking their names off a CIA kill-list. (It was then left to Trump to kill Awlaki’s 9-year-old daughter in Yemen on Jan. 29, 2017.)
But even granting the dubious principle that assassination has been made acceptable by the 2001/2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, there are several reasons why President Trump’s action was still illegal under the AUMFs that authorized the U.S. war on terrorism.
First-off, Soleimani and Muhandis were Shiite militiamen, not Sunni-Salafist terrorists, like, say, Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Soleimani and al-Muhandis had been engaged in the U.S. fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS, even if they were also associated with Shiite militia attacks against U.S. troops (which has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt).
Secondly, Soleimani and al-Muhandis were high-ranking government officials, not “non-state actors” like bin Laden and Zarqawi, which means their killing was illegal, absent a declaration of war against Iraq or Iran.
Thirdly, the U.S. is allied with the Iraqi government, which means the Trump administration was required to seek authority to carry out the attack without violating Iraqi sovereignty. Soleimani was in Iraq on an official state visit, making his extrajudicial killing especially heinous.
The question of whether Soleimani was guilty of war crimes should have been first decided between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and if he were, in fact, guilty, his prosecution and extradition should have been demanded before further action was taken.
It should also be observed that the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis risks inflaming the Shiites against the U.S. when Iranian Shiites are opposed to Sunni-Salafist terrorism, and Iraqi Shiites have been U.S. allies against Al Qaeda and ISIS.
And finally, Trump’s action not only jeopardizes the U.S. alliance with Iraq and strengthens Iran’s influence in the Middle East, but also risks escalating into a U.S. war with Iran that might prove even more disastrous than the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Hopefully, as I have suggested, the U.S. Congress will take action to prevent the worst from happening by curbing presidential war-powers under the War Powers Act, or bypassing whatever legislation might be deemed appropriate if the situation escalates.