Iran has vowed “harsh retaliation” for a US air strike near Baghdad’s airport that killed Iran’s top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East.
The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Iran, which has veered from one crisis to another since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
The United States urged its citizens to leave Iraq “immediately”.
“Harsh retaliation is waiting”
The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and other protesters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.
Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq, where they mainly train Iraqi forces and help to combat militants of so-called Islamic State.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the US after the air strike, calling Gen Soleimani the “international face of resistance”.
Ayatollah Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death.
Escalating tensions in the Middle East
Iran also summoned the Swiss charges d’affaires, who represents US interests in Tehran, to protest over the killing.
The killing, and any forceful retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering US troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
Over the last two decades Gen Soleimani had assembled a network of powerful and heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.
The US Defence Department said it killed Gen Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”.
It also accused Gen Soleimani of approving the orchestrated violent protests at the US embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
“The biggest miscalculation by the US” since the Second World War
Iranian state television called Mr Trump’s order to kill Gen Soleimani “the biggest miscalculation by the US” since the Second World War.
“The people of the region will no longer allow Americans to stay,” it said.
The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), and five others, including the PMF’s airport protocol officer Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.
Mr Trump was holidaying on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag.
Turning point in the Middle East
The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Mr Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the Congress and a re-election campaign.
It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy towards Iran after months of tensions.
Tehran shot down a US military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers last year.
The US also blames Iran for a series of other attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.
The tensions are rooted in Mr Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor Barack Obama.
Armed American drone
Gen Soleimani, 62, was the target of Friday’s US attack, which was conducted by an armed American drone, according to a US official.
His vehicle was struck on an access road near the Baghdad airport.
A senior Iraqi security official said the air strike took place near the cargo area after Gen Soleimani left his plane and joined al-Muhandis and others in a car.
The official said the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.
PMF officials said the bodies of Gen Soleimani and al-Muhandis were torn to pieces.
A senior politician said Gen Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
It is unclear what legal authority the US relied on to carry out the attack.
Dangerous escalation of violence
American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of the Congress when US personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat.
The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Gen Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the “highest priority” was to protect American lives and interests, but that “we cannot put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions”.
“Tonight’s airstrike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence. America – and the world – cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return,” she said in a statement.
She said Congress was not consulted on the strike and demanded it be “immediately” briefed on the situation and the next steps.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Mr Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox”, and like other Democratic White House hopefuls criticised the president’s order, saying it could leave the US “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East”.
If you want more, you will get more
But Trump allies were quick to praise the action.
“To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” tweeted South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.
The killing promised to strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is closely allied with both Washington and Tehran.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq” and a “blatant attack on the nation’s dignity”.
He also called for an emergency session of parliament to take “necessary and appropriate measures to protect Iraq’s dignity, security and sovereignty”.
Dangerous escalation in the region
The Syrian government, which has received key support from Iran throughout the civil war, also condemned the strike, saying it could lead to a “dangerous escalation” in the region.
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, released a statement mourning those killed in the US strike, saying their blood was not wasted.
Gen Soleimani had been rumoured dead several times, including in a 2006 plane crash that killed other military officials in north-western Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad.
Rumours circulated in November 2015 that Gen Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Gen Soleimani’s killing follows the New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US embassy in Baghdad.
The two-day embassy attack, which ended on Wednesday, prompted Mr Trump to order about 750 US troops deployed to the Middle East.
No-one was killed or wounded in the attack, which appeared to be mainly a show of force.
It prompted US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to postpone his trip to Ukraine and four other countries “to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East”, the State Department said.
The breach at the embassy followed US air strikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia operating in Iraq and Syria.
The US military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the US blamed on the militia.
US officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” defence secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq will be met with US military force.