U.S. drone strike kills powerful Iranian commander

Attack at Iraqi airport, ordered by Trump, is major escalation
A photo provided by the Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader shows Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, in 2016.
A photo provided by the Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader shows Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, in 2016.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Iran’s top security and intelligence commander was killed early Friday in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport that was authorized by President Donald Trump, U.S. officials said.

The commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, was killed along with several officials from Iraqi militias backed by Tehran when an American MQ-9 Reaper drone fired missiles into a convoy that was leaving the airport.

Soleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict.

The strike was also a serious escalation of Trump’s growing confrontation with Tehran, one that began with the death of an American contractor in Iraq in late December.

In Iran, the leadership convened an emergency security meeting. And the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a statement calling for three days of public mourning and then retaliation.

“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” the statement said, “but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”

U.S. officials were braced for potential Iranian retaliatory attacks, possibly including cyberattacks and terrorism, on American interests and allies.

Israel, too, was preparing for Iranian strikes. Some of the country’s most popular tourist sites, including the ski resort at Hermon, were closed, and the armed forces went on alert, officials said.

From the start of the Syrian civil war, Soleimani was one of the chief leaders of an effort to protect President Bashar Assad of Syria — an important Iranian ally — that brought together disparate militias, national security forces and regional powers, including Russia in recent years.

But that was far from the only front he operated on. U.S. officials accuse Soleimani of causing the deaths of hundreds of soldiers during the Iraq War, when he provided Iraqi insurgents with advanced bomb-making equipment and training. They also say he has masterminded destabilizing Iranian activities that continue throughout the Middle East and are aimed at the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“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. “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.”

It did not elaborate on the specific intelligence that led officials to carry out Soleimani’s killing. The highly classified mission was set in motion after the American contractor’s death Dec. 27 during a rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia, a senior U.S. official said.

In killing Soleimani, Trump took an action that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had rejected, fearing it would lead to war between the United States and Iran.

While many Republicans said that the president had been justified in the attack, Trump’s most significant use of military force to date, critics of his Iran policy called the strike a reckless unilateral escalation that could have drastic and unforeseen consequences that could ripple violently throughout the Middle East.

“Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wrote on Twitter. “The question is this – as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called the killing of Soleimani an act of “international terrorism” and warned it was “extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.”

“The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” Zarif tweeted.

Speaking to reporters while on vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on Tuesday night, hours after an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that U.S. officials said was orchestrated by Iran, Trump, who has repeatedly vowed to end American entanglements in the Middle East, insisted that he did not want war.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea for Iran. It wouldn’t last very long,” Trump said. “Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace.”

After initial reports of the strike emerged, Trump was unusually cryptic, but he appeared to revel in the news when he posted a tweet that consisted only of the image of an American flag.

Within minutes, Twitter accounts associated with Iranian figures were responding in kind, sending images of Iran’s flag — often accompanied by dire threats of revenge.

The strikes followed a warning Thursday afternoon from Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said the U.S. military would preemptively 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 preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” Esper said. “The game has changed.”

“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the Pentagon statement said. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”

In Iran, state television interrupted its programing to announce Soleimani’s death, with the news anchor reciting the Islamic prayer for the dead — “From God we came and to God we return” — beside a picture of the general.

Hawkish Iran experts said the strike would be deeply painful for Iran’s leadership. “This is devastating for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the regime and Khamenei’s regional ambitions,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, referring to Khamenei.

“For 23 years, he has been the equivalent of the JSOC commander, the CIA director and Iran’s real foreign minister,” Dubowitz said, using the initials for the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command. “He is irreplaceable and indispensable” to Iran’s military establishment.

For those same reasons, other regional analysts warned, Iran is likely to respond with an intensity of dangerous proportions.

Some U.S. officials and Trump administration advisers offered a less dire scenario, arguing that the show of force might convince Iran that its acts of aggression against American interests and allies have grown too dangerous and that a president the Iranians may have come to see as risk-averse is in fact willing to escalate.

One senior administration official said the president’s senior advisers had come to worry that Trump had sent too many signals — including when he called off a planned missile strike in late June — that he did not want a war with Iran.

Tracking Soleimani’s location at any given time had long been a priority for the U.S. and Israeli spy services and militaries. Current and former U.S. commanders and intelligence officials said that the attack, specifically, drew upon a combination of highly classified information from informants, electronic intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft and other surveillance.

The strike 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.

The public relations chief for the umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Mohammed Ridha Jabri, was also killed.

U.S. officials said that multiple missiles hit the convoy in a strike carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command.

U.S. military officials said they were aware of a potentially violent response from Iran and its proxies and were taking steps they declined to specify to protect American personnel in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

Two other people were killed in the strike, according to a general at the Baghdad joint command, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The Iraqi general said that Soleimani and Ridha, the militia public relations official, arrived by plane at Baghdad International Airport from Syria.

Two cars stopped at the bottom of the airplane steps and picked them up. Al-Muhandis was in one of the cars. As the cars left the airport, they were struck, the general said.

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.

The strikes come days after U.S. forces bombed three outposts of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported militia in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack last week near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The United States said that Kataib Hezbollah fired 31 rockets into a base in Kirkuk province last week, killing an American contractor and wounding several American and Iraqi servicemen.

The Americans responded by bombing three sites of the Khataib Hezbollah militia near Qaim in western Iraq and two sites in Syria. Khataib Hezbollah denied involvement in the attack in Kirkuk.

Pro-Iranian militia members then marched on the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday, effectively imprisoning its diplomats inside for more than 24 hours while thousands of militia members thronged outside. They burned the embassy’s reception area, planted militia flags on its roof and scrawled graffiti on its walls.

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