WASHINGTON — The United States and Iran exchanged escalating military threats on Friday as President Donald Trump warned that he was “prepared to take whatever action is necessary” if Iran threatened Americans and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to exact vengeance for the killing on Trump’s order of Iran’s most valued general.
Although the president insisted that he took the action to avoid a war with Iran, the continuing threats further rattled foreign capitals, global markets and Capitol Hill, where Democrats demanded more information about the strike and Trump’s grounds for taking such a provocative move without consulting Congress.
Democrats also pressed questions about the attack’s timing and whether it was meant to deflect attention from the president’s expected impeachment trial this month in the Senate. They said he risked suspicion that he was taking action overseas to distract from his political troubles at home, as in the movie “Wag the Dog.”
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But Trump, speaking to reporters in a hastily arranged appearance at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, asserted that Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who directed Iranian paramilitary forces throughout the Middle East, “was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Trump’s remarks, as did Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser. But Milley, Pompeo, O’Brien and other senior administration officials did not describe any threats that were different from what U.S. officials say Soleimani had been orchestrating for years.
Democrats questioned the lack of specifics about any new threat that would justify Trump’s order to kill Soleimani, which both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush had rejected as too risky.
“What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Soleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official, said in a statement. “The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means.”
In Baghdad, the State Department urged U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately, citing “heightened tensions.” The U.S. Embassy, which had been under siege by pro-Iranian protesters chanting “Death to America” in recent days, suspended consular operations.
“U.S. citizens should not approach the Embassy,” the State Department warned on Twitter. Iraq’s parliament is set to meet on Saturday and could consider a measure to expel all American forces from the country for the first time since 2003.
At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, some 3,500 members of the 82nd Airborne, ordered to the Middle East this week, prepared to deploy to Kuwait.
On Wall Street, the stock market fell as oil prices jumped after the news of the general’s death: The price of Brent oil, the international benchmark, surged in the early hours of Hong Kong trading to nearly $70 a barrel — an increase of $3.
The immediate increase in the price of oil was among the largest since an attack on a critical Saudi oil installation in September that temporarily knocked out 5% of the world’s supply.
Trump said that the killing early Friday of Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was long overdue, though he insisted he did not want a larger fight with Iran.
“We took action last night to stop a war,” the president said. “We did not take action to start a war.” But moments later he warned Iran that the American military had “already fully identified” potential targets for further attacks “if Americans anywhere are threatened.”
By early evening, as he came under growing criticism for what his critics called a reckless national security gamble, Trump said he wanted to contain the conflict.
“We do not seek war, we do not seek nation-building, we do not seek regime change,” Trump told a gathering of his evangelical supporters in Miami, seeming to draw a contrast with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Hours earlier, Khamenei had warned Trump that there would be consequences for Soleimani’s death, who died after an American MQ-9 Reaper drone fired missiles at his convoy as it was leaving Baghdad International Airport.
“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” Khamenei said in a statement, “but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”
Writing on Twitter earlier in the day, Trump suggested that Soleimani “got caught” preparing to hit American targets.
“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught!” Trump tweeted. “He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself.”
Briefing reporters Friday, O’Brien cited Trump’s “constitutional authorities as commander-in-chief to defend our nation” from attacks like those he said Soleimani had been plotting. He also cited Congress’ 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force. That measure was approved by Congress to grant the administration of President George W. Bush the legal authority to wage war on Saddam Hussein and the government of Iraq.
The strike touched off an immediate debate in Washington, with Republicans hailing the action as a decisive blow against a longtime enemy with American blood on his hands and Democrats expressing concern that the president was risking a new war in the Middle East.
As a private citizen, Trump repeatedly accused Obama of preparing to go to war with Iran to bolster his reelection chances in 2012. As president, Trump has questioned his own intelligence agencies and peddled repeated falsehoods, a record that could undermine the administration’s credibility on the highly delicate subject.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, said that a classified briefing was being arranged for all senators next week and that everyone should welcome the demise of Soleimani. “For too long, this evil man operated without constraint and countless innocents have suffered for it,” McConnell said Friday on the Senate floor. “Now his terrorist leadership has been ended.”
Democrats said Trump’s move could further involve the United States in Middle East conflict rather than pull out as he has promised. “President Trump came into office saying he wanted to end America’s wars in the Middle East, but today we are closer to war with Iran than ever before and the Administration’s reckless policy over the last 3 years has brought us to the brink,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland wrote on Twitter.
Soleimani, the driving force behind Iranian-sponsored attacks and operations over two decades around the region including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, was considered perhaps the second-most powerful figure in Iran, after Khamenei.
The decision to hit Soleimani complicates relations with Iraq’s government, which has tried to balance itself between the United States and Iran.
A senior Iraqi official said Friday that there was a good chance the Iraqi parliament would vote to force U.S. troops to leave the country. Top Iraqi leaders earlier had wanted to accommodate the troop presence because of the persistent threat from the Islamic State and other regional security matters.
On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was designating a prominent Iraqi militia supported by Iran as a foreign terrorist organization, in what appeared to be a policy extension of the strike on Soleimani. The move paved the way for harder U.S. actions against the militia, Aas’ib Ahl al-Haq. The State Department also designated the leaders of the militia, brothers Qais al-Khazali and Laith al-Khazali, as global terrorists. The group received training and financing from the Quds Force, the elite unit led by Soleimani, the department said.
Dalia Dassa Kaye, an Iran expert at the RAND Corp., a research organization, said the killing of Soleimani was a “major escalation beyond proxy conflict to a direct conflict with Iran that is likely to be viewed in existential terms on Iran’s side,” especially in the wider context of Trump’s continuing sanctions campaign to isolate Iran.
She added that likely costs included a rupture with the Iraqi government, which would weaken the fight against the Islamic State group; a further alienation of U.S. allies who have been seeking de-escalation this year between Western nations and Iran; and growing challenges to containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Just because the U.S. can take punitive actions doesn’t mean it should,” she said.