Tensions between the United States and Iran escalated on Friday after a US air strike killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF.
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The Pentagon confirmed the strike at Baghdad’s international airport, saying it came “at the direction of the president”.
Soleimani and al-Muhandis’s deaths are a potential turning point in the Middle East and are expected to draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the region against Israel and US interests.
Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, said “two vehicles were attacked with multiple missiles by US forces” and all 10 passengers, including Soleimani, were “martyred”.
The Quds Force said the dead consisted of five members of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network and five Guards – Brigadier General Hossein Pourjafari, Colonel Shahroud Mozafarinia, Major Hadi Taremi and Captain Vahid Zamanian.
Soleimani acquired celebrity status at home and abroad as the leader of the foreign arm of Iran’s elite forces Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and for his key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq. He survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past 20 years.
US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to defend his decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, claiming that the Quds Force commander was behind the deaths of “millions of people”, including US citizens and his own Iranian compatriots. Soleimani “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more”, Trump said.
“He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself,” he added.
In his second tweet since the strike, Trump said, “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” His first tweet, just after reports of the attacks surfaced, was an image of a US flag.
Trump also said “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!” He added that Soleimani should have “been taken out many years ago”.
Iraq’s Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi said in a statement: “Yesterday’s targeting of a military commander in Iraq’s armed forces near Baghdad international airport is a flagrant breach of sovereignty and violation of international agreements.”
“Iraq must avoid becoming a battlefield or a side in any regional or international conflict,” he said. Halbousi, who as speaker is Iraq’s top Sunni Arab politician, called on the government to take all steps needed to stop such attacks.
The United States urged its citizens to leave Iraq “immediately”, citing “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region”. A State Department statement added that “due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the US Embassy compound, all consular operations are suspended. US citizens should not approach the Embassy.”
Dozens of US citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra were leaving the country on Friday, the oil ministry said. The US embassy in Baghdad urged all its citizens to leave Iraq immediately. Iraqi officials said the evacuation would not affect operations, production or exports.
Washington is committed to “de-escalation” after a US air strike in Baghdad killed Qassem Soleimani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. Pompeo said on Twitter that he spoke to British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi about the US decision to eliminate Soleimani.
Flags at Iranian embassies abroad were ordered to fly at half-mast and preparations were being made for Soleimani’s body to be transferred to Iran. The date for the funeral has yet to be announced.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for three days of mourning, saying Major General Soleimani’s killing will double the motivation of the resistance against the US and Israel. According to Iranian state television, Khamenei said harsh revenge awaits “criminals” who killed Soleimani.
President Hassan Rouhani said Iran and the “free nations of the region” would take revenge on the US for “this gruesome crime”. His death had “redoubled the determination of the nation of Iran and other free nations” to stand up to the US, Rouhani said.
Iran’s top security body convened an emergency meeting. The foreign ministry summoned an official from the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests in Iran, to “strongly protest” the killing, according to ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.
The Guards said they and the “resistance front” would “start a new chapter as of today”. “Certainly, the fleeting rejoicing of Americans and Zionists will turn into mourning before too long,” said spokesman Ramezan Sharif.
In a tweet, Foreign Minister Javed Zarif tweeted that “the US act of international terrorism, targeting and assassinating General Soleimani is extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation”. “The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” he added.
Responding to the US’ killing of Soleimani, Iran’s National Security Council spokesman Keyvan Khosravi said “the legal, political, security, and military consequences of this crime is on the US government”.
“The costs that Washington has to pay will be much more severe than the mirage-like achievements of this sort of blind moves,” he added.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Iran to protest against US “crimes”, after US strikes killed Soleimani. Chanting “Death to America” and holding up posters of the slain commander, the demonstrators filled streets for several blocks in central Tehran after Friday prayers.
State news agency IRNA reported similar demonstrations in the cities of Arak, Bojnourd, Hamedan, Hormozgan, Sanandaj, Semnan, Shiraz and Yazd.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Esmail Qaani as the new head of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm. “Following the martyrdom of the glorious general haj Qassem Soleimani, I name Brigadier General Esmail Qaani as the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Khamenei said in a statement posted on his official website.
Israel’s military had gone on heightened alert amid fears that Iran could strike through its regional allies such as Hezbollah to the north, or through Palestinian group Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
STRIKES NOT AUTHORISED BY CONGRESS
US Democratic congressional leaders issued statements condemning President Trump ordered strikes that killed Soleimani, saying the president did not obtain the congressional approval. “American leaders’ highest priority is to protect American lives and interests. But we cannot put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Tonight’s air strike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence. America – and the world – cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return,” she added. “The Administration has conducted tonight’s strikes in Iraq targeting high-level Iranian military officials and killing Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran. Further, this action was taken without the consultation of the Congress.”
She called for a briefing on the situation.