File photo: Qassem Soleimani. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The US raid that killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in the early hours of Friday opens a period of fresh tensions in the region. The price of petrol has jumped by more than four per cent following his killing. There's talk of revenge from Iran and its ally Lebanon's Hezbollah. The killing of the powerful commander is certain to impact the region for some time to come. 

But what intrigues many is how the killing of the top commander was carried out. Was it a missile attack? Were Drones used?  The Pentagon is yet to respond on this and the details of the planning and execution of the deadly operation is still shrouded in secrecy, however, most reports agree on at least two things: the missiles and the drones used in the mission.

When did it happen?

Soleimani and officials from Iran-backed militias were leaving Baghdad airport in two cars early Friday when they were hit by a series of US drone strikes near a cargo area.

The commander had reportedly flown in from Lebanon or Syria. Several missiles struck the convoy and at least seven people are believed to have died.

Weapons used

Al Arabia reported that he was coming from Syria and with him were some Lebanese Hezbollah officials. They were killed in the attack involving air-to-ground missile Hellfire R9X.

"Initial analyzes indicate the use of a Hellfire R9X “Ninja” missile in the process of liquidating the Quds commander, Soleimani, and his companions, near the international airport in Baghdad. It is the ninth time that American forces have used this type of missile alongside other missiles launched by the drone," Al Arabia said.

Qasem Soleimani
A picture published by the media office of the Iraqi military's joint operations forces on their official Facebook page shows a destroyed vehicle on fire following a US strike on January 3, 2020 on Baghdad international airport road in which top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani was killed along with eight others Image Credit: AFP

Several US media outlets also reported that drones were used in the strike that hit two vehicles on the road leading to Baghdad international airport.

Soleimani - who commanded Iran's Quds special forces and was considered one of the country's most powerful figures - was traveling in one of them.

Iranian state media however said that US helicopters launched the attack. Whether it is an outright misinformation campaign or  a diversionary tactic as they are gathering more information of the situation is not immediately known. 

Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis - the deputy chief of the Iraqi, largely pro-Iran, paramilitary force Hashed Al Shaabi - was also killed.

Was Israeli intelligence involved? Not yet clear. However, the method used to kill members of a foreign military looked more like the modus operandi of the Israeli Army than US forces, reported global analysts familiar with the situation.

The US Army typically organises its special forces with precision when they seek to take out highly placed terror targets, they said. They are also not reluctant to presenting the evidences at the next available opportunity. It has not happened so far.

Examples include the killing of Osama Bin Laden  and, more recently, former Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

What is Hellfire R9X?

The AGM-114 Hellfire is an air-to-surface missile originally developed for anti-armor use by US. However, later models were developed for precision drone strikes against other target types. They have been reportedly used in a number of targeted killings of high-profile individuals

The Hellfire R9X is a Hellfire variant with a kinetic warhead with pop-out blades, intended to reduce collateral damage. R9X had been deployed in secret since 2017, and their existence was revealed only in 2019. This variant was reportedly used in the killing of Jamal Ahmad Mohammad Al Badawi, accused mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, as well as Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr Al Masri.

The US government developed this missile for airstrikes with pinpoint accuracy against terror leaders with no explosion. Instead, it employs a six-blade system that pops out on impact and gashes through the specified targets, with the least impact on surroundings.

R9X missile
The R9X is a missile that doesn't have explosives but 6 pop out blades that will slice through everything in its path. Image Credit: Social Media

Deadly drone

The drone used in the operation was a US MQ-9 Reaper, reports The New York Times. It is reported as one of the most feared in the hands of US Air Force. The MQ-9's capabilities make it uniquely qualified to conduct irregular warfare operations, US military documentats show.

The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft that is used primarily against dynamic execution targets. It has significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons - all making it ideal for difficult tasks in hostile terrain – such as the one involving Soleimani.

US MQ-9 Reaper
US MQ-9 Reaper drone Image Credit: File photo

Tracking Soleimani's location had long been a priority for the American and Israeli spy services and militaries, especially when he was in Iraq.

Soleimani often moved in and out of Iraq with an air of impunity, as if he thought he was untouchable. Which made things easier for the Americans at last. One former senior American commander recalled parking his military jet next to Soleimani's plane at the Irbil airport in northern Iraq, according to NYT.

'Trump ordered the killing'

US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani "in a decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad," the Pentagon said.

"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," the Department of Defense said.

Following Soleimani's death, Trump tweeted an image of the US flag without any further explanation. 

'Soleimani should have been taken out many years ago'

Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has killed many Americans and should have been killed years ago, Trump said.

“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 tweeted.

“He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of protesters killed in Iran itself,” the US president said.

“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!,” he added.