Iran’s military commander Qasem Soleimani was killed by an air strike at Baghdad airport on January 3 ordered by President Donald Trump, the Pentagon has confirmed.
The 62-year-old general spearheaded Iran’s Middle East operations as head of the elite Quds Force.
President Trump said the US took its action to stop, not start, a war. However, the killing marks a major escalation in tensions.
According to US officials, 3,000 additional troops will be sent to the Middle East as a precaution.
Qasem Soleimani was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran, behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reported directly to the ayatollah and Qasem Soleimani was hailed as a heroic national figure.
Under his 21-year leadership of the Quds Force, Iran bolstered Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militant groups in Lebanon; expanded its military presence in Iraq and Syria; and orchestrated Syria’s offensive against rebel groups in that country’s long civil war.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US wanted to de-escalate the situation, but that the strike was “lawful” and “saved lives”.
Later he thanked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Saudi Arabia’s “steadfast support” and “for recognizing aggressive threats posed by Iran’s Quds force”, the state department said.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Iranians have been holding rallies in Tehran and other cities, denouncing what they call US crimes.
Meanwhile, global oil price rose sharply in the wake of the attack.
Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei said “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack. Qasem Soleimani’s death would double “resistance” against the US and Israel, he added.
The ayatollah also announced three days of national mourning. He would lead prayers at a funeral ceremony for the general in Tehran on January 5, Iranian media quoted Qasem Soleimani’s family as saying.
Later, the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s top security body, said the US would be held responsible for its “criminal adventurism”.
It said in a statement: “This was the biggest US strategic blunder in the West Asia region, and America will not easily escape its consequences.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the attack an “act of international terrorism”.