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American citizens have been warned to leave Iraq immediately after Iran vowed vengeance against the U.S. after President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of one of Tehran’s top military commanders in a rocket attack at Baghdad International Airport.
The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and a beloved figure across Iran, marks a significant escalation in the standoff between Tehran and Washington, and on Friday morning Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S., calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.”
“A forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands,” Khamenei added. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Soleimani’s work in resisting the U.S. would continue and that “the great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.”
The Pentagon confirmed it conducted the airstrike and said Soleimani was killed because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Experts now fear that the killing could ignite an already tense relationship between Iran and the U.S., which has deteriorated rapidly since President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord.
“From Iran’s perspective, it is hard to imagine a more deliberately provocative act,” Robert Malley, the chief executive of the International Crisis Group, told the New York Times. “And it is hard to imagine that Iran will not retaliate in a highly aggressive manner.”
In the early hours of Friday morning, Soleimani arrived at Baghdad International Airport on a flight from Syria, disembarked, and entered one of two cars waiting near the plane.
In the cars were three prominent members of the Iraqi militia, including Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander.
As the convoy was pulling out of the airport, close to the cargo area, it was struck by missiles fired by an American MQ-9 Reaper drone-fired missiles.
The airstrike instantly killed all five people in the cars. AP reports that Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
Officials were able to pinpoint his location using a combination of top-secret information from informants, electronic intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft, and other surveillance.
The highly-classified mission was triggered by the death of an American contractor during a rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia just after Christmas, a senior American official told the New York Times.
Who was Soleimani?
By the time of his death, the diminutive 62-year-old had achieved near-mythical status among his enemies, and he was idolized by Iranian hard-liners.
Soleimani began his rise to power following the 1979 Iran revolution, joining the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and conducting guerrilla-style attacks during the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s — a style of warfare that would become the calling card of the Quds Force.
He also forged strong ties with Iraq’s majority-Shiite population during this time, which would help him when he sought to extend Tehran’s influence outside of Iran’s borders.
By the late 1990s, he was put in charge of the elite Quds Force, and for the last two decades he has been behind virtually every operation conducted by Iranian intelligence and military forces.
American officials say Soleimani is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq War, as he provided advanced bombmaking equipment and training to Iraqi insurgents.
Soleimani orchestrated Iran’s proxy war across the Middle East, using militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon to extend Tehran’s influence.
“Wherever you see Iranian activity, you see Qassem Soleimani, whether it is in Syria, whether it is in Iraq, whether it is in Yemen, he is there and it is the Quds Force, the organization which he leads, that I think is the principal threat as we look at this and the principal ones that are stoking this destabilizing activity,” General Joseph Votel, the then-commander of U.S. Central Command that oversees American military operations in the Middle East, said in 2018.
How is the world reacting?
As Khamenei announced the national mourning period, tens of thousands of Iranians filled the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities after Friday prayers chanting anti-U.S. slogans such as “Death to America.”
A massive crowd dressed in black gathered on the streets of Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman to mourn the death of a man considered a national hero in Iran.
As news of an explosion at the Baghdad airport emerged and rumors of Soleimani’s death swirled on social media, Trump cryptically posted a grainy image of the American flag without comment.
The president has yet to publically comment on the assassination, but unsurprisingly, it has divided Congress along party lines.
Democrats have been quick to point out that the decision, which could trigger a full-scale war with Iran, was made without congressional approval.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the strike was carried out “without the consultation of Congress” adding that the attack could “put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions.”
Republicans, however, were quick to defend Trump. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said Trump “exercised admirable restraint while setting clear red lines & the consequences for crossing them.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that many in the Middle East were celebrating Soleimani’s death, posting a widely circulated video of Iraqis dancing in the street after hearing the news.
Former National Security Adviser and Iran hawk John Bolton was effusive in his praise of the assassination.
However, the remaining signatories to the 2015 nuclear pact have called for restraint from both sides.
France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin told a French radio station that “we are waking up to a more dangerous world. Military escalations are always dangerous.”
Dominic Raab, the U.K. Foreign Secretary, said that “further conflict is in none of our interests [and] we urge all parties to de-escalate.”
What happens next?
Many experts are warning that the attack on such an important figure in Iran’s leadership could trigger an all-out war in the region, pointing out that Tehran has already reacted violently to the White House campaign of “maximum pressure” which includes the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear pact and imposing crippling economic sanctions on the country.
Iran’s reaction to these measures has been attacking tankers in the Persian Gulf, and striking Saudi oil facilities.
U.S. officials told the New York Times that they are prepared for a wide range of retaliatory actions from Tehran, ranging from cyberattacks to terrorism against U.S. interests and allies.
On Friday morning, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq warned all U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately, leaving on flights if possible, or if not, to go to “other countries via land” — though it didn’t specify which countries.
Keen to prevent a leadership vacuum that might undermine Iran’s response, Khamenei has wasted no time in appointing a successor to Soleimani, naming his deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, as the new commander of the Quds Force on Friday morning.
Any military retaliation by Iran against the U.S. would have repercussions not only for Tehran and Washington but for the entire Middle East.
“The Pentagon said it was carried out with the goal of deterring further Iranian attacks — but in the short term, there is a very real possibility of retaliatory action by Iran that could reverberate across the region,” Naysan Rafati, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, told the Washington Post.
Cover: In this Sept. 18, 2016 file photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)