WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon says the US military has killed Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Trump.
An airstrike killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its regional security apparatus, at Baghdad’s international airport Friday, Iranian state television and three Iraqi officials said, an attack that’s expected to draw severe Iranian retaliation against Israel and American interests.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, the officials said. The PMF media arm said the two were killed in an American airstrike that targeted their vehicle on the road to the airport.
Citing a Revolutionary Guard statement, Iranian state television said Soleimani was “martyred” in an attack by U.S. helicopters near the airport, without elaborating.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials, and U.S. President Donald Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag.
Their deaths are a potential turning point in the Middle East and if the U.S. carried them out, it represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.
Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. Meanwhile, the U.S. blames Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.
The tensions take root in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor.
A senior Iraqi politician and a high-level security official confirmed to The Associated Press that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were among those killed in the attack shortly after midnight. Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with the Kataeb Hezbollah faction, which was involved in the New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy along with others to receive Soleimani, whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike took place near the cargo area after he left the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and others.
Two officials from the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces said Suleimani’s body was torn to pieces in the attack while they did not find the body of al-Muhandis. Asenior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because they were not authorized to give official statements.
As the head of the Quds, or Jersualem, Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces. Quds Force members have deployed into Syria’s long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.
Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad.
U.S. officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. Iran has denied that. Soleimani himself remains popular among many Iranians, who see him as a selfless hero fighting Iran’s enemies abroad.
Soleimani had been rumored 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 Assad. Rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Earlier Friday, an official with the Popular Mobilization Forces said seven people were killed by a missile fired at Baghdad International Airport, blaming the United States.
The official with the group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces said the dead included its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.
A security official confirmed that seven people were killed in the attack on the airport, describing it as an airstrike. Earlier, Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which releases information regarding Iraqi security, said Katyusha rockets landed near the airport’s cargo hall, killing several people and setting two cars on fire.
It was not immediately clear who fired the missile or rockets or who was targeted. There was no immediate comment from the U.S.
The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack which ended Wednesday prompted President Donald Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
It also prompted 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,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.
The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. 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.
U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the rocket attack on Dec. 27 that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.
He said the Iraqi government has fallen short of its obligation to defend its American partner in the attack on the U.S. embassy.
The developments also represent a major downturn in Iraq-U.S. relations that could further undermine U.S. influence in the region and American troops in Iraq and weaken Washington’s hand in its pressure campaign against Iran.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020
President Trump ordered a game-changing U.S. military attack that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, among other military officials at Baghdad International Airport early Friday, the Pentagon confirmed.
Soleimani is the military mastermind whom Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had deemed equally as dangerous as Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In October, Baghdadi killed himself during a U.S. raid on a compound in northwest Syria, seven months after the so-called ISIS “caliphate” crumbled as the terrorist group lost its final swath of Syrian territory in March.
In April 2019, the State Department announced Iran was responsible for killing 608 U.S. troops during the Iraq War. Soleimani was the head of the Iranian and Iranian-backed forces carrying out those operations killing American troops. According to the State Department, 17 percent of all deaths of U.S. personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 were orchestrated by Soleimani.
As recent as 2015, a travel ban and United Nations Security Council resolutions had barred Soleimani from leaving Iran.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, three Iraqi officials told The Associated Press. Iraqi TV reported the deaths as well.
In all, at least seven people were killed and at least three rockets were fired, officials told The Associated Press.
There was no immediate comment from Iran. Hours after the attack was announced, President Trump tweeted a simple image of the American flag.
Soleimani was the long-running leader of the elite intelligence wing called Quds Force – which itself has been a designated terror group since 2007, and is estimated to be 20,000 strong. Considered one of the most powerful men in Iran, he routinely was referred to as its “shadow commander” or “spymaster.”
“Soleimani is our leader” had been photographed spray-painted on windows by Iran-backed militiamen at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.
A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
The PMF blamed the United States for the attack.
Local reporters had suggested that pro-Iran military leaders may have been targeted, but officials have not yet confirmed all of the dead and who may have been behind the attack. An official with PMF told The Associated Press one of the victims was its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.
Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which released information regarding Iraqi security, said the three Katyusha rockets landed near the cargo hall.
Iraqi security also said two cars were on fire.
Rockets Strike #Iraq‘s #BaghdadAirport, #USMilitary Choppers Spotted in Airspace. Three rockets landed on the edge of #Baghdad International Airport , causing explosions but no deaths or injuries, according to local reporters.#IraqiProtests pic.twitter.com/fdEFmkTxpq
— Ehab Al Obaidy (@Ehab8Alobaidy) January 2, 2020