Trump: Strike was ‘to stop a war’
Iran vows to retaliate; US sending troops to Mideast amid tensions
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.
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event held in Miami on Friday.
A boy in Tehran carries a portrait of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.