Written by QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA & ZEINA KARAM
IRAN VOWED “harsh retaliation” for a US drone strike near Baghdad’s airport that killed a top Iranian general who had been the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, and the US announced Friday it was sending more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.
The killing of General 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 United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Middle East and 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 US 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. US embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Lebanon, Bahrain Kuwait and Nigeria.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the US after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance”. Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Major General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.
General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught! He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and vowed his country would “take revenge”. Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass onto the United States.
Thousands of worshippers in the Iranian capital Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America”.
The targeted strike, and any retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering US troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. However, the attack may act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response.
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 US forces out.
The US Defence 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 the orchestrated violent protests at the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried out Friday by an American drone, according to a US 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 in the airstrike, including five Revolutionary Guard members and Soleimani’s son-in-law, whom he did not identify.
Trump, who is vacationing at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, said in a tweet Friday the airstrike was ordered because Soleimani was “plotting to kill” many Americans. “He should have been taken out many years ago!’’ Trump tweeted.
“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught! He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number…. …of protesters killed in Iran itself,” he tweeted
“While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!” Trump tweeted.
However, the potential for a spiralling escalation alarmed US allies and rivals alike. “We are waking up in a more dangerous world,’’ France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, told RTL radio. The European Union warned against a “generalised flare-up of violence.’’ Russia condemned the killing, and fellow Security Council member China said it was “highly concerned”.’ Britain and Germany noted that Iran also bore some responsibility for escalating tensions, while Saudi Arabia urged restraint.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said it in a statement Friday that it had held a special session and made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond, though it didn’t reveal them.
Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting with top security officials Friday, but the Israeli military said it was not taking any extraordinary action on its northern front, other than closing a ski resort in the Golan Heights near Lebanon and Syria as a precaution.
In the UAE, a key US ally in the Gulf, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, called for “rational engagement” and a “calm approach”.
The most immediate impact could be in Iraq. Funerals for al-Muhandis and the other slain Iraqis were set for Saturday. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq.’’ An emergency session of parliament was called for Sunday, which the deputy speaker, Hassan al-Kaabi, said would take “decisions that put an end to the US presence in Iraq”.