Iran vows to respond for Soleimani killing
BAGHDAD — Iran promised to seek revenge for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday it was sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.
The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Iran, which has careened from one crisis to another since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
The targeted strike, and any retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to Southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.
“We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Trump said of Soleimani.
Still, the United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation for the killing. The U.S. also urged American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” following the early morning airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others. The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.
Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State group militants. Defense officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon. A Pentagon official who was not authorized to be identified said the U.S. also had placed an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy. U.S. embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.
The U.S. announcement about sending more troops came as Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said, adding that he does not seek regime change in Iran.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “harsh retaliation” after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.
Thousands of worshipers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America.”
However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and the U.S. was prepared. Oil prices surged on news of the airstrike and markets were mixed.
The killing promised to further strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran and has been deeply worried about becoming a battleground in their rivalry. Iraqi politicians close to Iran called for the country to order U.S. forces out.
The Defense Department said it killed the 62-year-old Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving orchestrated violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The strike, on an access road near
Baghdad’s airport, was carried out Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. official.
Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said. The blast tore his body to pieces along with that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore. Iran’s state TV said Friday 10 people were killed, including five Revolutionary Guard members and Soleimani’s son-in-law.
In this Sept. 18, 2016, file photo provided by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani (center) attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran.