The United States has launched an airstrike at Baghdad International Airport, killing a senior Iranian military official, and dramatically igniting tensions in the region.
The Pentagon confirmed late on Thursday that President Donald Trump had ordered the strike which killed Major General Qassim Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of an Iranian-backed militant group in Iraq, was also killed in the targeted attacks on a convoy of vehicles in the vicinity of Iraq’s main airport.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” secretary of defence Mark Esper said in a statement, describing the attack as “defensive action to protect US personnel abroad.”
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
Iran branded the attack as an “act of international terrorism,” and accused the US of “rogue adventurism.” “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 and a foolish escalation,” tweeted Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif. “The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe retaliation severe retaliation awaits murderers who have the blood of Soleimani and that of other martyrs on their wicked hands from last night’s incident.”
The attack is the culmination of days of heightened tension between the US and Iran following an attack on a US compound in Iraq on December 27th which left one American contractor dead. The US blamed an Iranian-backed militia group, Kataib Hezbollah, for the attack, and subsequently launched strikes on sites associated with the groups, which killed more than two dozen people.
Following those strikes, protestors believed to be associated with the Iranian-backed group stormed the US embassy in Baghdad. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the deployment of hundreds of extra US troops to the region in response.
General Qassim Suleimani was one of the most powerful figures in Iran and was centrally involved in Iran’s activities in the greater Middle East region, where it supports various militia groups.
Thursday’s strikes come amid a steady increase in hostilities between Washington and Tehran since the election of Donald Trump. The US president withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which saw Iran limit its nuclear activities in exchange for the listing of economic sanctions. Instead, the US has been increasing economic pressure on Iran, imposing sanctions on key institutions and individuals in the country.
In June, Iran shot down an unmanned US drone in the Straits of Hormuz. The United States was “cocked and loaded” to attack Iran, according to Mr Trump, but he ultimately cancelled the operation.
Iran is widely believed to be behind attacks on key oil sites in Saudi Arabia in September while it also targetted vessels in the Persian Gulf last year.
Mr Trump did not comment on Thursday’s developments, but tweeted a picture of an American flag as news of the attack emerged. Earlier this week, Mr Trump tweeted following the attack on the US embassy: “They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”
Hours before the strike on Thursday, Mr Esper warned that the “game has changed” when it came to Iran, noting that America could take preemptive action in the region if needed to protect American lives.
Several Republicans commended Mr Trump’s actions. Senator Marco Rubio said the president had exercised “tremendous restraint,” noting that Iran had chosen to respond to economic pressure by sponsoring and directing attacks aimed at killing Americans.
But Democrats questioned the president’s strategy and his decision to launch the strike without consulting Congress.
Former vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden said that Mr Trump had “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” describing the attack as a “hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region.”
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question,” he tweeted. “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?””
Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that while he “won’t grieve” Soleimani’s death, he was “deeply concerned” about the repercussions of the strike. In particular he noted that Iran may seek retribution through its proxies in the region. “Tonight’s action represents a massive escalation in our conflict with Iran with unpredictable consequences.”
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