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What do US and international law say about the legality of Trump’s murder of Suleimani?

Baghdad (QNN)- On the early hours of Jan. 3, Trump unexpectedly decided to escalate the situation with Iran, killing its most important military figure and the man, who spearheaded its foreign military activity, Major General Qassem Soleimani, in a targeted drone strike on the road leading to Baghdad International Airport.

In the same airstrikes, ten others were killed, including Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, deputy commander of Iraq’s quasi-official Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) and leader of the Iraqi militia and PMF Keta’ib Hezbollah, which the United States recently targeted as well.

The Trump administration immediately justified the strikes first describing Soleimani as a ruthless killer, and then saying the raid was in response to “imminent threats to American lives.”

“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement, adding that the killings were “defensive” strikes aimed at deterring future Iranian attacks.

However, that did not prevent controversy about the legality of the strikes and assassinations according to the United States and international laws.

“The airstrike on Baghdad airport is an act of aggression and a breach of Iraq’s sovereignty,” Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions weighed in as well, slamming the Pentagon for violating international law.

US law

The American airstrike has been carried out without informing the American Congress or seeking the consent of the Iraqi government.

Democrats were quick to criticise the strike early on Friday, saying it should have been approved by Congress.

“The American people deserve to know why President Trump has brought us to the brink of another war and under what authorisation,” Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

However, Executive branch lawyers—primarily those in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the main office responsible for formulating the U.S. government’s internal legal views—generally maintain that, at least absent any legislation to the contrary, Article II of the Constitution gives the president the legal authority to use military force overseas so long as (a) he does so pursuant to important U.S. interests and (b) the operation in question is limited enough in nature, scope and duration that it falls below the threshold of what requires congressional authorization under the Constitution, according to the Law Fare Blog.

While there is debate as to what extent the president’s decision to pursue the Jan. 3 strike actually serve the national interests, the Justice Department views this prong as “a question of policy more than law” on which it largely defers to the president and his policy advisers. In this case, the prong seems readily satisfied by Soleimani’s central role in organizing countless violent attacks against U.S. personnel over the past two decades both in Iraq and elsewhere.

“There’s a pretty clear-cut legal case, from the perspective of the executive branch, that if Trump were to take military action against Iran, it would be consistent with what the executive branch’s authority is,” Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Washington-based think-tank Brookings Institution, told Middle East Eye.

On the other hand, Heather Hurlburt, a national security expert at the think tank New America, told Vox that ” it’s rather unlikely that he [Suleimani] was signing off on an operation that was immediately going to target Americans as he was driving back from the Baghdad airport for meetings. Now, that is my definition of imminent, but other experts will disagree.”

International law

“The targeted killings of [Qassem Soleimani] and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis are most likely unlawful and violate international human rights law,” Agnes Callamard said in a lengthy Twitter thread.

“Lawful justifications for such killings are very narrowly defined and it is hard to imagine how any of these can apply to these killings,” she continued.

Callamard stated that the US justification of the assassination, claiming that he was killed to to “deter future Iranian attack plans”, does not hold up under international law.

“Future is not the same as imminent, which is the time based test required under international law” to strike at any given target, Callamard said.

“An individual’s past involvement in ‘terrorist’ attacks is not sufficient to make his targeting for killing lawful,” she added.

At least six people were killed alongside Soleimani in the drone strike. The UN Rapporteur said the killing of other individuals alongside Soleimani was “absolutely” unlawful.

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