BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran vowed “harsh retaliation” for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed a top Iranian general who had been the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. announced Friday it was sending more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.
The killing of Gen. 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 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.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.
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 Muslim 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 U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.
However, the attack may act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Oil prices surged on news of the airstrike and markets were mixed.
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 U.S. forces out
The Defense 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 U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried out Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. 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.
The attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by Congress and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.
The tensions are rooted in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Since then, Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for other attacks targeting tankers and a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.
Supporters of Friday’s strike said it restored U.S. deterrence power against Iran, and Trump’s allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted.
“Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” Trump’s former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a tweet.
Others, including Democratic White House hopefuls, criticized Trump’s order. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” saying it could leave the U.S. “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.”
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.
The potential for a spiraling escalation alarmed U.S. 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 “generalized 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.
While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, Iran can strike asymmetrically in the region through its allied forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on “the resistance the world over” to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Frictions over oil shipments in the Gulf could also increase, and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard has built up a ballistic missile program.
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.
Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah said the U.S. strike could help restore confidence among Gulf leaders that Washington will push back against their rival Iran. But, he said, they also don’t want to be caught in the middle. “Is the region ready for a sharp escalation?” he said. “We are the closest to the theater than anyone on earth.”
Iraq has been gripped by massive anti-government protests since October, partly against Iran’s influence. But there was little celebration of Soleimani’s death among protesters camped out in a central Baghdad square.
For Iran, the killing marks the loss of a cultural icon who stood for national pride and resilience in the face of U.S. sanctions. Soleimani’s profile rose sharply as the U.S. and Israel blamed him for Iranian proxy attacks abroad.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Zeke Miller in Washington; Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; and Joseph Krauss and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.