Neither Soleimani nor the soldiers were registered on the passenger manifesto, according to a Cham Wings airline employee who described the scene of their departure from the Syrian capital to Reuters
Iranian General Qassem Soleimani arrived at the Damascus airport in a vehicle with dark-tinted glass. Four soldiers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards rode with him. They parked near a staircase leading to a Cham Wings Airbus A320, destined for Baghdad.
Neither Soleimani nor the soldiers were registered on the passenger manifesto, according to a Cham Wings airline employee who described the scene of their departure from the Syrian capital to Reuters. Soleimani avoided using his private plane because of rising concerns about his own security, said an Iraqi security source with knowledge of Soleimani's security arrangements.
The passenger flight would be Soleimani’s last. Rockets fired from a US drone killed him as he left the Baghdad airport in a convoy of two armored vehicles. Also killed was the man who met him at the airport: Abu Mahdi Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iraqi government's umbrella group for the country's militias.
The Iraqi investigation into the strikes that killed the two men on January 3 started minutes after the US strike, two Iraqi security officials told Reuters. National Security agents sealed off the airport and prevented dozens of security staff from leaving, including police, passport officers and intelligence agents.
Investigators have focused on how suspected informants inside the Damascus and Baghdad airports collaborated with the US military to help track and pinpoint Soleimani’s position, according to Reuters interviews with two security officials with direct knowledge of Iraq’s investigation, two Baghdad airport employees, two police officials and two employees of Syria’s Cham Wings Airlines, a private commercial airline headquartered in Damascus.
The probe is being led by Falih al-Fayadh, who serves as Iraq’s national security adviser and the head of the PMF, the body that coordinates with Iraq's mostly Shi'ite militias, many of which are backed by Iran and had close ties to Soleimani.
The National Security agency’s investigators have “strong indications that a network of spies inside Baghdad Airport were involved in leaking sensitive security details” on Soleimani’s arrival to the United States, one of the Iraqi security officials told Reuters.
The suspects include two security staffers at the Baghdad airport and two Cham Wings employees - “a spy at the Damascus airport and another one working on board the airplane,” the source said. The National Security agency’s investigators believe the four suspects, who have not been arrested, worked as part of a wider group of people feeding information to the US military, the official said.
The two employees of Cham Wings are under investigation by Syrian intelligence, the two Iraqi security officials said. The Syrian General Intelligence Directorate did not respond to a request for comment. In Baghdad, National Security agents are investigating the two airport security workers, who are part of the nation’s Facility Protection Service, one of the Iraqi security officials said.
"Initial findings of the Baghdad investigation team suggest that the first tip on Soleimani came from Damascus airport,” the official said. “The job of the Baghdad airport cell was to confirm the arrival of the target and details of his convoy.”
The media office of Iraq’s National Security agency did not respond to requests for comment. The Iraq mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to a request for comment.
The US Department of Defense declined to comment on whether informants in Iraq and Syria played a role in the attacks. US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the United States had been closely tracking Soleimani’s movements for days prior to the strike but declined to say how the military pinpointed his location the night of the attack.
A Cham Wings manager in Damascus said airline employees were prohibited from commenting on the attack or investigation. A spokesman for Iraq’s Civil Aviation Authority, which operates the nation’s airports, declined to comment on the investigation but called it routine after “such incidents which include high-profile officials.”