The United States killed Iran’s top general and the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport Friday, an attack that threatens to dramatically ratchet up tensions in the region.
The targeted killing of Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The U.S. Defence Department said in a statement that it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
An adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani quickly warned U.S. President Donald Trump of retaliation from Tehran.
“Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S.
Iranian state TV carried a statement by Khamenei also calling Soleimani “the international face of resistance.” Khamenei also declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death.
Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but tweeted an American flag shortly after Suleimani’s death was confirmed.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that Iraqis were dancing in the street for freedom.
Iraqis — Iraqis — dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more. <a href=”https://t.co/huFcae3ap4″>pic.twitter.com/huFcae3ap4</a>
Iran’s foreign minister called the killing “extremely dangerous” and “a foolish escalation.”
The US’ act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.<br><br>The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, the officials said. The PMF media arm said the two were killed in an American airstrike that targeted their vehicle on the road to the airport.
Citing a Revolutionary Guard statement, Iranian state television said Soleimani was “martyred” in an attack by U.S. helicopters near the airport, without elaborating.
The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the U.S. House and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.
U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, was critical of the attack in a statement, saying it was done without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran and without the consultation of the Congress.
“The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the Administration,” she wrote, “including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region.”
The tensions are rooted in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor.
A senior Iraqi politician and a high-level security official confirmed to The Associated Press that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were among those killed in the attack. Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with the Kataeb Hezbollah, which was involved in the attack on the U.S. Embassy this week.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because they were not authorized to give official statements.
The senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
Rumoured dead before
Soleimani, who has led the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards and has had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquired celebrity status at home and abroad.
He was instrumental in the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.
He has been rumoured dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More recently, rumours circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday following U.S. air raids Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah militia bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.
The two-day embassy attack which ended Wednesday prompted Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
It also prompted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to postpone his trip to Ukraine and four other countries “to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.
The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.
U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the rocket attack on Dec. 27 that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.
He said the Iraqi government has fallen short of its obligation to defend its American partner in the attack on the U.S. embassy.
The developments also represent a major downturn in Iraq-U.S. relations that could further undermine U.S. influence in the region and American troops in Iraq and weaken Washington’s hand in its pressure campaign against Iran.