Who was the Iranian military commander killed in the Damascus strike?

Gen. Mohammed Zahedi. (X)
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Updated 03 April 2024
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Who was the Iranian military commander killed in the Damascus strike?

  • Mohammad Reza Zahedi is the highest-ranking Iranian military commander to be killed since Qassem Soleimani’s elimination in 2020
  • Fears grow of an open Israel-Iran confrontation, with Syria and Lebanon as the possible main battlegrounds

LONDON: Born on Nov. 2, 1960, in Isfahan, central Iran, Mohammad Reza Zahedi was a contemporary and close friend of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the 62-year-old commander of the Quds Force, who was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 3, 2020.

Soleimani had enrolled in what was then the newly formed Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, better known as the IRGC, in 1979, at the age of 22. Zahedi joined the IRGC the following year, when he was 20, at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War.

Both men rose to prominence in the ranks of the special-operations Quds Force over the ensuing eight years of the conflict.




Emergency and security personnel inspect the rubble at the site of strikes which hit a building next to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus. (AFP)

It was Soleimani who appointed Zahedi commander of the Quds Force Lebanon Corps in 1998, a position he held until 2002, and to which he was reappointed in 2008. He was responsible for organizing support for the regime of President Bashar Assad during the Syrian civil war, and overseeing shipments of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah via Syria.

Like Soleimani before him, on Monday night Zahedi met his end in a sudden and devastating missile attack, with no warning of his imminent demise. He was 63.

According to the IRGC, seven of its personnel, including Zahedi and three other senior officers, died alongside six Syrians in the attack on Monday, which targeted a military building next to the Iranian embassy in Damascus.

The three officers were named as Saeed Izadi, head of the Palestinian Division of the Quds Force in Beirut, Abdolreza Shahlai, commander of IRGC operations in Yemen, and Abdolreza Mosjedzadeh, who oversaw Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

Israel has refused to comment on the strike, even to confirm it was involved. The Iranian Embassy said that F-35 planes fired six missiles at the building. Later, The New York Times, citing unnamed Israeli officials who confirmed Israel carried out the attack, described the incident as “a major escalation of what has long been a simmering, undeclared war between Israel and Iran.”

In photographs distributed by the Reuters news agency shortly after the attack, the Iranian embassy — on the fence of which a large poster of Soleimani could be seen hanging — appears relatively undamaged. The building next door had been reduced to a smoking pile of rubble.

Reaction to the attack was rapid. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, who visited the site soon after, said: “We strongly condemn this atrocious terrorist attack that … killed a number of innocents.”

Iran’s mission to the UN condemned it as a “flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter, international law, and the foundational principle of the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises,” and said Tehran reserved the right “to take a decisive response.”

Hossein Akbari, Iran’s ambassador to Syria, was unharmed in the attack. He told Iranian state TV that about seven people, including diplomats, had been killed and that Tehran’s response would be “harsh.”

Irani’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, also vowed to retaliate, saying “this crime will not pass without the enemy receiving punishment and revenge.”

There is a long history of embassies being attacked by enemies, but usually such assaults involve mobs of people or terrorist groups. In 1983, for example, 64 people lost their lives in a suicide-bomb attack on the US Embassy in Beirut carried out by a pro-Iranian group, and in 1998, 223 people died in simultaneous Al-Qaeda truck-bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

It is highly unusual, however, for one state to attack the diplomatic premises or personnel of another and so the strike, not surprisingly, was condemned by nations including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar and Russia.

America did not condemn the attack outright but a State Department spokesperson said Washington was “concerned about anything that would be escalatory or cause an increase in conflict in the region.”




Iranians attend an anti-Israel protest at Palestine square in Tehran. (AFP)

It was also quick to issue a statement claiming that “the United States had no involvement in the strike and we did not know about it ahead of time,” while also stressing that the US “communicated this directly to Iran.”

The regime in Tehran appeared to be unconvinced by this, however. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said a Swiss diplomat representing US interests had been summoned by Tehran.

“An important message was sent to the American government, as a supporter of the Zionist regime,” Amir-Abdollahian said in a message posted on social media platform X. “America must give answers.”

The day after the attack, Israeli news media quoted Hezi Simantov, a well-connected Israeli correspondent and commentator on Arab affairs, who predicted that Iran was now “laying the groundwork to strike at Israeli diplomatic representations worldwide, in the Arab world, Europe or the United States or South America.”

The death of Zahedi, he added, “is a severe and painful blow to the Iranian regime, a matter in which the Iranians are more inclined to take revenge against Israel. We have already eliminated several of their senior officials since Oct. 7 on Syrian soil. This is the period when Iran wants to show that it is leading the Axis of Resistance.”




A Russian forces commander visits the governor of Damascus on Monday. Two expressive pictures. (X)

On Tuesday, Iranian state TV reported that the country’s Supreme National Security Council, chaired by the president, Ebrahim Raisi, had decided on a “required” response to the Israeli strike. No further details were given.

Zahedi was the third senior IRGC leader killed since the outbreak of the war in Gaza. His death is the most significant loss suffered by the Quds Force since the assassination of Soleimani four years ago and, before that, the death of Hossein Hamedani in October 2015.

At the time of his death, in an attack by Daesh in Aleppo, Hamedani was the most senior Iranian officer killed overseas since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

In December, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, the IRGC logistics chief in Syria, who was responsible for coordinating the military alliance between Syria and Iran, died in a presumed Israeli missile strike on the outskirts of Damascus.

In January, Hujatollah Amidvar, an intelligence operative for the IRGC in Syria, was killed by an airstrike on a compound west of Damascus.

According to the Iranian Mehr News Agency, Zahedi held a series of significant roles within the IRGC. During the Iran-Iraq War, from 1983 to 1988 he commanded the 44th Qamar Bani Hashim Brigade, before going on to lead the 14th Imam Hussein Division between 1988 and 1991.

By 2005, he had become the IRGC’s head of ground forces, a post he held until 2008, and from 2007 until 2015 he was commander of the Syrian and Lebanese branch of the Quds Force, operating in Lebanon under aliases including Hassan Mahdavi and Reza Mahdavi.




Hezbollah fighters carry the coffin of commander Ahmed Shehimi, who was killed in an Israeli raid in Syria early on March 29, during his funeral procession in southern Beirut. (AFP)

Zahedi became the target of US sanctions in 2010, when the Department of the Treasury included him on a list of four senior members of the IRGC and Quds Force sanctioned “for their roles in the IRGC-QF’s support of terrorism.”

Described in a Treasury statement on Aug. 3, 2010, as “the commander of the IRGC-QF in Lebanon,” Zahedi was accused of playing “a key role in Iran’s support to Hezbollah.” He “also acted as a liaison to Hezbollah and Syrian intelligence services and is reportedly charged with guaranteeing weapons shipments to Hezbollah.”

The Quds Force has been active in Syria since 2011, when officers were deployed in an advisory role to support the regime of Assad, an ally of Iran, in the wake of the Arab Spring protests and uprisings in the region.

But, as the Council on Foreign Relations later reported, “as the discontent turned to civil war, the Quds Force served not just as military advisers but also on the front lines, fighting alongside Syrian regime forces, Lebanese Hezbollah militants, and Afghan refugees serving in IRGC proxy militias.”




Emergency and security personnel clear damaged cars and rubble at the site of strikes which hit a building annexed to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus. (AFP)

It remains to be established beyond doubt whether or not Iran or its Quds Force was involved in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel led by Hamas last year. IRGC officials “may have directly authorized Hamas’s assault and assisted in planning it, though Hamas and the IRGC have insisted that the Palestinian group acted independently,” the Council on Foreign Relations said.

It added that at the very least, Tehran “was likely aware of an impending attack that it had facilitated through decades of support for the Palestinian fighters.”

Either way, it added, “in the ensuing Israel-Hamas conflict, the IRGC has provided arms and other assistance to help its partners in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to attack Israeli targets in solidarity with Hamas.”

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More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

Updated 6 sec ago
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More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

  • Crowds overrun some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend, leading to a two-day suspension of aid distribution
  • At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million

WASHINGTON: A six-day-old US pier project in Gaza is starting to get more aid to Palestinians in need but conditions are challenging, US officials said Thursday. That reflects the larger problems bringing food and other supplies to starving people in the besieged territory.

The floating pier had a troubled launch, with crowds overrunning some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend. One man in the crowd was shot dead in still-unexplained circumstances. It led to a two-day suspension of aid distribution.
The US military worked with the UN and Israeli officials to select safer alternate routes for trucks coming from the pier, US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told reporters Thursday.
As a result, the US pier on Wednesday accounted for 27 of the 70 total trucks of aid that the UN was able to round up from all land and sea crossings into Gaza for distribution to civilians, the United States said.
That’s a fraction of the 150 truckloads of food, emergency nutrition treatment and other supplies that US officials aim to bring in when the sea route is working at maximum capacity.
Plus, Gaza needs 600 trucks entering each day, according to the US Agency for International Development, to curb a famine that the heads of USAID and the UN World Food Program have said has begun in the north and to keep it from spreading south.

Only one of the 54 trucks that came from the pier Tuesday and Wednesday encountered any security issues on their way to aid warehouses and distribution points, US officials said. They called the issues “minor” but gave no details.
A deepening Israeli offensive in the southern city of Rafah has made it impossible for aid shipments to get through the crossing there, which is a key source for fuel and food coming into Gaza. Israel says it is bringing aid in through another border crossing, Kerem Shalom, but humanitarian organizations say Israeli military operations make it difficult for them to retrieve the aid there for distribution.
The Biden administration last week launched the $320 million floating pier for a new maritime aid route into Gaza as the seven-month-old Israel-Hamas war and Israeli restrictions on land crossings have severely limited food deliveries to 2.3 million Palestinians.
For all humanitarian efforts, “the risks are manifold,” Daniel Dieckhaus, USAID’s response director for Gaza, said at a briefing with Cooper. “This is an active conflict with deteriorating conditions.”
Dieckhaus rejected charges from some aid groups that the pier is diverting attention from what the US, UN and relief workers say is the essential need for Israel to allow full access to land crossings for humanitarian shipments.
For instance, Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official now leading Refugees International, tweeted that “the pier is humanitarian theater.”
“I would not call, within a couple of days, getting enough food and other supplies for tens of thousands of people for a month theater,” Dieckhaus said Thursday when asked about the criticism.
At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million.
 


Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

Updated 26 min 35 sec ago
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Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

WASHINGTON: Three US troops suffered non-combat injuries in the effort to make a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza into a conduit for humanitarian aid, with one in critical condition at an Israeli hospital, US officials said on Thursday.

The injuries were the first for US forces during the latest operation to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

The pier was announced by US President Joe Biden in March and involved the military assembling the floating structure off the coast. Estimated to cost $320 million for the first 90 days and involve about 1,000 US service members, it went into operation last week.

US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the deputy commander of US Central Command, told reporters that two of the troops had a sprained ankle and a minor back injury.

“Two were very minor, routine injuries. Those individuals returned to duty,” Cooper said.

A third service member, injured on a ship at sea, was medically evacuated to a hospital in Israel, he said. A US defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the individual was in critical condition.

US lawmakers have voiced concern about the risks to positioning US troops off the coast of Gaza. Biden has said they will not step foot in the war-torn city itself.

The Pentagon has said it will prioritize the safety of US military personnel.

“We’re clear eyed and we continue to look at force protection all day, every day and as it stands now we assess the operations can continue,” Cooper said.

Social media images showed a US air defense system, known as the Counter Rockets, Artillery and Mortars (CRAM), firing into the sky while on the pier. US officials said troops were testing the system.

Daniel Dieckhaus of the US Agency for International Development said that since the pier opened last week, about 506 metric tons of aid had been handed off to humanitarian groups inside Gaza. About a third of that has not yet been distributed but would be soon, he said.


Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

Updated 23 May 2024
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Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

GAZA STRIP: A senior official at Al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza said it was under Israeli military siege for a fifth straight day on Thursday after soldiers stormed it the previous day.

“We are still under siege for the fifth day in a row,” said the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Mohammed Saleh.

“Soldiers are present in the hospital’s courtyard and nearby houses,” he said, adding that there was “continuous gunfire and shelling” toward it.

Troops stormed the hospital building on Wednesday evening, he said.

“The hospital was stormed, and staff were forced to leave. I currently have only 13 staff, 11 patients, and two women accompanying wounded children,” Saleh said.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on social media platform X that 140 staff, patients, and accompanying adults were inside the hospital when troops stormed it.

The WHO visited Al-Awda regularly in April to deliver medical supplies and fuel, but on Tuesday Ghebreyesus said snipers were targeting the building and artillery had hit the fifth floor.

On Tuesday, patients and staff were also evacuated from another hospital in northern Gaza, Kamal Adwan, its director, Dr. Hossam Abu Safia, said at the time.

“These are the only two functional hospitals remaining in northern Gaza. Ensuring their ability to deliver health services is imperative,” Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

Israeli troops have previously raided other medical facilities in Gaza, including Al-Shifa in Gaza City, the territory’s largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble after an operation in March, the WHO said.


Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

Russian President Vladimir receives Bahrain's King Hamad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 23, 2024. (BNA)
Updated 23 May 2024
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Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

  • King meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin 

RIYADH: Bahrain’s King Hamad said his country was looking forward to improving its relations with Iran during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.
The king added that there was no reason for Bahrain to postpone the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, the Bahrain News Agency reported on Thursday.
The king and Putin discussed the war in Gaza, regional and international efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire, and the release of hostages and detainees. They also focused on providing humanitarian aid without obstacles to the territory’s civilian population.
They highlighted the importance of advancing the course of diplomatic action to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and achieving a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The leaders also said efforts to recognize the Palestinian state and accept it as a permanent member of the UN should be supported.
They also stressed the importance of the UN Security Council assuming its responsibilities toward resolving and ending global conflicts, and working to settle them in accordance with the rules of international law and the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security.
The king informed the Russian president of the outcomes of the Arab Summit held recently in Bahrain, adding that Arab countries appreciated Russia’s sympathy for just Arab causes.
The king and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the convening of an international conference at the summit, which would take place under the auspices of the UN, to resolve the Palestinian issue on the basis of a two-state solution.
The king added that he hoped to host the conference and requested Russia’s support for it.


Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state

Updated 23 May 2024
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Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state

  • The parliament described the move as a victory for justice and the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state
  • Growing international recognition of a Palestinian state represented a practical response to Israel’s plans to “liquidate the Palestinian cause, which will not succeed”

CAIRO: The Arab Parliament has welcomed a decision by the governments of Spain, Norway and Ireland to recognize the state of Palestine.
The prime ministers of the three countries said on Wednesday that they would formally recognize Palestine as a state on May 28.
All three said they hoped the decision would accelerate efforts toward securing a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, now in its eighth month.
The parliament described the move as a victory for justice and the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state.
It said the decision was a “new victory for the Palestinian cause and Palestinian diplomacy,” and an important step toward recognition by many countries worldwide.
The parliament said the recognition supported the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, foremost of which is the establishment of an independent state with the city of Jerusalem as its capital.
It said that the announcements come at a time when Israel is working to destroy the Palestinian cause through “ethnic cleansing and forced displacement against civilians, including children, women, and the elderly, against whom war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed.”
Growing international recognition of a Palestinian state represented a practical response to Israel’s plans to “liquidate the Palestinian cause, which will not succeed,” it added.
The parliament called on countries that have not yet recognized the state of Palestine to take a step toward “ending the historical injustice to which the Palestinian people have been exposed for decades of occupation and per the internationally recognized two-state solution based on international legitimacy resolutions.”
It called on the international community and all countries to stand with the Palestinian people and their just cause.
Ireland has said it will upgrade its representative office in the West Bank to a full embassy, while the Palestinian mission in Ireland will also be offered full embassy status.