Trump: Strike was ‘to stop a war’

Iran vows to re­tal­i­ate; US send­ing troops to Mideast amid ten­sions

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Zeke Miller, Robert Burns and Lolita C. Bal­dor

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­clared Fri­day that a “reign of ter­ror is over” as he marked the death of an Ira­nian gen­eral killed in a U.S. drone strike he said he or­dered and as the Pen­tagon scram­bled to re­in­force the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence in the Mid­dle East in prepa­ra­tion for reprisals by Tehran, which vowed “harsh re­tal­i­a­tion.”

Gen. Qassem Soleimani “made the death of in­no­cent peo­ple his sick pas­sion,” Trump said from his es­tate in Palm Beach, Florida, adding “a lot of lives would have been saved” if he’d been hunted down years ago.

Trump re­jected con­cerns that his de­ci­sion to kill the head of Iran’s elite Quds force, would draw the U.S. into a wider con­flict in the Mid­dle East.

“We took ac­tion last night to stop a war,” he said. “We did not take ac­tion to start a war.”

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials said 3,000 to 3,500 troops from the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are de

ploy­ing to Kuwait. That’s in ad­di­tion to the 600 sent ear­lier this week in re­sponse to Bagh­dad em­bassy protests.

Al­most 24 hours af­ter the at­tack on Soleimani, an­other airstrike killed five mem­bers of an Ira­nian-backed mili­tia north of Bagh­dad, an Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said.

Ira­nian-backed mili­tias in Iraq known as the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces con­firmed the strike,

The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary did not carry out the re­ported at­tack, ac­cord­ing to a U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

Also Fri­day, the Pen­tagon placed an Army brigade in Italy on alert to fly into Le­banon if needed to pro­tect the Amer­i­can Em­bassy there, part of a se­ries of mil­i­tary moves to pro­tect U.S. in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East. Speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity, an of­fi­cial said the U.S. could send 130 to more than 700 troops to Beirut from Italy.

Re­in­force­ments were or­dered as U.S. of­fi­cials said they had com­pelling in­tel­li­gence that Soleimani was plan­ning a sig­nif­i­cant cam­paign of vi­o­lence against the United States.

Trump said of Soleimani: “We caught him in the act and ter­mi­nated him,” adding, “We take com­fort in know­ing that his reign of ter­ror is over.”

U.S. of­fi­cials of­fered few de­tails of what they said was a plot to kill Amer­i­can sol­diers and diplo­mats. The men­tion of diplo­mats seemed to sug­gest that tar­gets in­cluded an Amer­i­can em­bassy — pos­si­bly the one in Bagh­dad that was stormed by pro-Iran mili­tias last week.

“There was an im­mi­nent at­tack,” Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo said on Fox News. “What was sit­ting be­fore us was his trav­els through­out the re­gion and his ef­forts to make a sig­nif­i­cant strike against Amer­i­cans. There would have been many Mus­lims killed as well — Iraqis, peo­ple in other coun­tries as well.”

Pom­peo de­fended the strike as “wholly law­ful.”

The strike marked a ma­jor es­ca­la­tion in the con­flict be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Iran. The two na­tions have faced re­peated crises since Trump with­drew from the 2015 nu­clear deal and im­posed crip­pling sanc­tions.

Soleimani was a cul­tural icon in Iran and the re­puted master­mind be­hind the Is­lamic Repub­lic’s mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions through­out the re­gion, back­ing Houthi rebels in Ye­men, the Hezbol­lah party in Le­banon and other groups.

He also helped fight against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants who at one point seized large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The at­tack — which also killed Abu Mahdi alMuhan­dis, deputy com­man­der of the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces — im­me­di­ately in­flamed ten­sions in the re­gion. Al­ready, Wash­ing­ton and Tehran have been en­gaged in a steadily sim­mer­ing tit-for­tat con­flict since Trump with­drew from the 2015 land­mark Iran nu­clear deal and reim­posed harsh sanc­tions that have bat­tered Tehran’s econ­omy.

“Harsh re­tal­i­a­tion is wait­ing” for the United States, Iran’s Supreme

Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei warned in Tehran as he de­clared three days of mourn­ing and ap­pointed Maj. Gen. Es­mail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to re­place him.

Thou­sands of wor­ship­pers in Tehran took to the streets af­ter Fri­day prayers to con­demn the killing, wav­ing posters of Soleimani and chant­ing “Death to de­ceit­ful Amer­ica.”

The United States urged its cit­i­zens to leave Iraq “im­me­di­ately” as fears mounted that the strike and any re­tal­i­a­tion by Iran could ig­nite a con­flict that en­gulfs the re­gion.

The White House did not in­form law­mak­ers be­fore the strike. De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper no­ti­fied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the strike shortly be­fore the Pen­tagon con­firmed it pub­licly.

The strike touched off a de­bate in Wash­ing­ton, with Repub­li­cans hail­ing the ac­tion as a de­ci­sive blow against a long­time en­emy with Amer­i­can blood on his hands and Democrats ex­press­ing con­cern that the pres­i­dent was risk­ing a new war in the Mid­dle East.

With Congress re­turn­ing to town af­ter the hol­i­days for a pre­sumed Se­nate im­peach­ment trial, Trump risked sus­pi­cion that he was tak­ing ac­tion over­seas to dis­tract from his po­lit­i­cal trou­bles at home.

JIM WAT­SON/GETTY-AFP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speaks dur­ing a cam­paign event held in Mi­ami on Fri­day.

VAHID SALEMI/AP

A boy in Tehran car­ries a por­trait of Ira­nian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Bagh­dad.

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