US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who died in an airstrike on the Baghdad International Airport early Friday, the Pentagon said. Hours later, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei said ‘a harsh retaliation is waiting’.
“All Enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with a doubled motivation, and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war,” Khamenei said in a statement carried by TV, Reuters reported. He also declared three days of mourning in the country.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also said the move by the US was “an extremely dangerous and foolish escalation.”
Issuing a statement on the air strike, the US Department of Defense said, “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Confirming the same, the White House tweeted, “At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
Responding to this, Zarif posted on the micro-blogging site: “The US’ act of international terrorism, targeting and assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
Iraqi and Lebanese television also reported Soleimani’s death, which was confirmed by senior militia leaders in Iraq.
The killing of Soleimani could further strain ties between Iran and US and escalate President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the former, which began with economic sanctions but has steadily moved into the military arena.
The strike also comes a day after Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper warned that the United States military would pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were signs the paramilitary groups were planning more attacks against U.S. bases and personnel in the region.
“If we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” Esper said, adding, “The game has changed.”
Besides Soleimani, the strike also killed five people, including the pro-Iranian chief of an umbrella group for Iraqi militias, Iraqi television reported and militia officials confirmed. The militia chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was a strongly pro-Iranian figure.
Mohammed Ridha Jabri, the public relations chief for the umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, was also killed in the incident.
Two other people were killed in the strike, according to an officer at the Baghdad joint command.
According to a general with the Iraqi Joint Command, Soleimani and Ridha, the militia public relations official arrived by plane from Syria at the Baghdad airport when two cars stopped at the bottom of the airplane steps and picked them up. Al-Muhandis was in one of the cars.
As the two cars left the airport, they were bombed, the general said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The strike was the second attack at the airport within hours. An earlier attack, late Thursday, involved three rockets that did not appear to have caused any injuries.
On Tuesday, thousands of pro-Iranian demonstrators ended a siege that had trapped US diplomats in the embassy compound overnight. The demonstrators had swarmed outside the embassy, chanting “Death to America!” Read: ‘Death to America’: What happened in Tehran on November 4, 1979?
Some tried to scale the compound’s walls and others clambered onto the roof of the reception building they had burned the day before.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said while Soleimani was “an enemy of the United States,” the killing could put more Americans at risk. “One reason we don’t generally (assassinate) foreign political officials is the belief that such action will get more, not less, Americans killed,” Murphy said on Twitter. “That should be our real, pressing and grave worry tonight.”
Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted, “Qassem Soleimani was an arch terrorist with American blood on his hands. His demise should be applauded by all who seek peace and justice. Proud of President Trump for doing the strong and right thing.”
(With inputs from agencies)