The U.S. strike on Baghdad Friday that resulted in the deaths of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and a top Iraqi paramilitary chief threatens to drag Iraq into the abyss of a regional conflict, analysts warned.
The U.S. strike on Baghdad International Airport targeted a convoy carrying Soleimani and his top Baghdad-based adviser Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Iraq's powerful Hashed al-Shaabi force.
The raid has confirmed the worst fears of many Iraqis – that their homeland will become the main battlefield in a looming conflict between Iran and the United States.
"Iran's strongest cards are in Iraq, and I think that Iraq will pay the price for this," said Fanar Haddad of Singapore University's Middle East Institute.
The strain between the United States and Iran has been rising for months, as Washington accused Tehran-backed factions of firing rockets on their troops across Iraq and on their embassy in Baghdad.
However, the tension soared over the past week.
On Dec. 27, a rocket attack killed a U.S. contractor working in northern Iraq, prompting retaliatory U.S. strikes that killed 25 fighters from Kataeb Hezbollah, a hardline Hashed faction.
Angry Hashed supporters laid siege to the U.S. Embassy as Washington announced hundreds of new U.S. troops were en route to the region.
Path to war?
Washington delivered its most decisive blow yet early Friday when a volley of strikes hit near Baghdad International Airport, leaving two cars torched on the access highway.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards confirmed Soleimani was killed in the strike, while the Hashed announced Muhandis's death.
With the two dead, the Quds Force – the foreign operations arm of Iran's Guards Corps – has been left decapitated, and the Hashed lost its de facto chief, too.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed "severe revenge" for the raid, and its top security council was meeting to discuss options.
Analysts said the outbreak of a wider conflict was looking increasingly likely.
"If Iran needs to respond and make a performance out of this, the fear is that there will be something more than just loading rockets at embassies," said Haddad.
"It could set Iraq along the path of internal conflict, and that's something Iran can very easily instigate," he said.
The nature of the strike is unprecedented because of the seniority of the targeted – making its repercussions hard to picture, said Ramzy Mardini, a researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"The problem with judging what happens next is a problem of imagination. Nobody thought this was in the realm of possibility," he told Agence France-Press (AFP).
"It's likely that all actors on all sides will be playing things by ear in the short term, which is a recipe for miscalculation," said Mardini.
'Heads will roll'
Friday's strike had shown that Iran could no longer use its allies in Iraq to carry out attacks against U.S. interests "without risking an American conventional retaliation on Iran," Mardini told AFP.
"Plausible deniability has gone out the window."
The U.S. had expressed increasing frustration with the escalating rocket attacks on its 5,200 troops in Iraq and on its embassy in Baghdad over the past two months.
U.S. forces led the 2003 invasion against then-dictator Saddam Hussein, and Washington has worked closely with Iraqi officials and commanders since then.
But its influence has waned compared with that of Iran, which carefully crafted personal ties with Iraqi politicians and armed factions, even during Saddam's reign.
Soleimani was the prime example, sweeping into Baghdad regularly to hold a meeting with top Iraqi officials during times of turmoil.
Ranj Alaaldin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, said it would leave Iran with a range of questions for its Iraqi partners.
"How did the U.S. know of Soleimani's arrival in Baghdad? Who leaked the intel?" Alaaldin tweeted.
"Watch the Iraqi political space. Heads will roll."