Qassim Soleimani, head of Iran elite Quds Force, assassinated in US airstrike at Baghdad airport

General Qassim Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed in a US airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport early on Friday, an assassination that marks a major escalation in US-Iran tensions.

The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF.

The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani “in a decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad”.

“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. 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,” the Department of Defence said.

After the attack, Mr Trump tweeted a picture of the American flag, without any explanation.

pic.twitter.com/VXeKiVzpTf— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020

US officials told Reuters that Soleimani had been killed in a drone strike.

The killing of Soleimani  is a major blow for Iran. Together with the death of Muhandis, the attack could mark a potential turning point in the Middle East and is expected to draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the Middle East against Israel and American interests.

Iran warns of ‘harsh retaliation’

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the US.

The Iranian state TV carried a statement by Khamenei also calling Soleimani “the international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death.

President Hasan Rouhani  said Iran and the “free nations of the region” will take revenge on the United States.

“There is no doubt that the great nation of Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America,” Rouhani said in a statement posted on the Iranian government website.

Government spokesman Ali Rabiei warned on Twitter that retaliation was “not too far away”.

Iran’s top security body called an urgent meeting on Friday, semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

A destroyed vehicle on fire after a US strike at Baghdad international airport Credit: AFP

“In a few hours, an extraordinary meeting of the Supreme National Security Council will be held to review the murderous attack on the vehicle of General Soleimani in Baghdad that lead to his martyrdom,” ISNA quoted its secretariat spokesman Keyvan Khosravi as saying.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the assassination “an extremely dangerous and foolish escalation”.

“The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” he said in a post on Twitter.

Iraqi paramilitary groups said three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests.” 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said Soleimani was “martyred” in an attack by US helicopters near the airport, without elaborating.

The statement was carried on state television, which interrupted its programming to announce the death. 

A black ribbon was displayed on the screen and a photo montage was shown with images of Soleimani smiling and praying, while the news anchor recited the Islamic prayer for the dead.

Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, posted a video on Twitter purporting to show Iraqis dancing in the streets celebrating news of the death.

Iraqis — Iraqis — dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more. pic.twitter.com/huFcae3ap4— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 3, 2020

A high-level Iraqi security official told AP that Muhandis had arrived at the airport in a convoy to welcome  Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the aircraft to be greeted by Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.

A PMF official said the dead also included its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.

A senior Iraqi politician told AP that Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces Credit: Reuters

Oil prices soared more than four percent on Friday while Asian shares fell on Friday, erasing early gains.

Soleimani seen as future potential leader of Iran

Both Muhandis and  Soleimani have been sanctioned by the United States.

Soleimani, who has led the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards and has played a central role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquired celebrity status at home and abroad.

Seen as a potential future leader of Iran, he was instrumental in the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East.

He survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greets Qassim Soleimani during a ceremony in Tehran Credit: Rex

Soleimani had been rumoured dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. More recently, rumours circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.

The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a 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 soldiers deployed to the Middle East.

Mr Trump said on Tuesday that Iran would “be held fully responsible” for the attack on the embassy.

News of the killing received a mixed response in thew US.

Trump has ‘ tossed stick of dynamite into tinderbox’

Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee, said Congress did not authorise the strike.

“Soleimani was responsible for unthinkable violence and world is better off without him,” he said on Twitter.

“But Congress didn’t authorise and American people don’t want a war with Iran. All steps must now be taken to protect our forces against the almost inevitable escalation and increased risk.”

Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, said “no American will mourn Solemani’s passing”.

But he warned that the move would likely have significant ramifications in the region.

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox, and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy and plan to keep safe our troops and embassy personnel, our people and our interests, both here at home and abroad, and our partners throughout the region and beyond.”

But former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Soleimani’s death “should be applauded by all who seek peace and justice.”

Lindsey Graham, senator of South Carolina, threatened Iran with attacks on its oil refineries if it continues to target US interests. 

To the Iranian government: If you want to stay in the oil business leave America and our allies alone and stop being the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 3, 2020

“Thank you, Mr. President, for standing up for America,” Mr Graham said. “If Iran continues to attack America and our allies, they should pay the heaviest of prices, which includes the destruction of their oil refineries.”

The breach at the embassy followed US airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataib Hizbollah.

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 U.S. blamed on the militia.

(c) The Telegraph

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