Top Iran commander killed in US strike on Baghdad; Khamenei vows ‘severe revenge’

Updated 03 Jan 2020

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In this Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, file photo, Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, attends an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, in Tehran, Iran. — AP
In this Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, file photo, Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, attends an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, in Tehran, Iran. — AP

Top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani was killed on Friday in a US strike on Baghdad's international airport, confirmed Iran and the US, in a dramatic escalation of tensions between the two countries.

The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered Soleimani's "killing", after a pro-Iran mob this week laid siege to the US embassy. Following Soleimani's death, Trump tweeted an image of the US flag without any further explanation.

In the wake of the assassination, the US embassy in Baghdad urged all citizens to depart Iraq immediately.

“Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, the US embassy urges American citizens to heed the January 2020 travel advisory and depart Iraq immediately."

"US citizens should depart via airline while possible, and failing that, to other countries via land,” it said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to exact “severe revenge” for Soleimani's death.

“Martyrdom was the reward for his ceaseless efforts in all these years,” Khamenei said on his Twitter account in reference to Soleimani, also declaring three days of mourning.

“With him gone, God willing, his work and his path will not be stopped, but severe revenge awaits the criminals who bloodied their foul hands with his blood and other martyrs' in last night's incident,“ he added.

Read more: Qasem Soleimani — the general who became an Iran icon by targeting US

The pre-dawn developments mark the most major escalation yet in a feared proxy war between Iran and the US on Iraqi soil.

Early on Friday, a volley of missiles hit Baghdad's international airport, striking a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Iran.

Just a few hours later, Iranian state television carried a statement by the Revolutionary Guard Corps saying Soleimani "was martyred in an attack by America on Baghdad airport this morning".

The Hashed confirmed that both Soleimani and its deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in what it said was a "US strike". "The deputy head of the Hashed, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and head of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, were killed in a US strike that targeted their car on the Baghdad International Airport road," it said.

The Hashed is a network of mostly-Shia armed units, many of whom have close ties to Tehran but which have been officially incorporated into Iraq's state security forces.

The units joined forces to fight the militant Islamic State group in 2014, after many of them built up years of fighting experience during Iraq's war years, including against the US.

According to AP, Iraqi officials said five others were also killed.

Iran minister calls US act 'foolish escalation'

Iran's foreign minister slammed Soleimani's killing as a dangerous escalation and warned the United States would bear responsibility for the consequences.

"The US' act of international terrorism, targeting and assassinating General Soleimani [...] is extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation," Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter.

"The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism," he added.

Iran's top security body called an urgent meeting on Friday over the "martyrdom" of Qasem Soleimani by the United States in Baghdad, semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

"In a few hours, an extraordinary meeting of the Supreme National Security Council will be held to review the murderous attack on the vehicle of General Soleimani in Baghdad that lead to his martyrdom," ISNA quoted its secretariat spokesman Keyvan Khosravi as saying.

'An enemy of the United States'

US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Soleimani had been killed in a drone strike in Baghdad.

The official said it was aware of the possibility of an Iranian response and US military officials were ready to defend themselves. The official did not rule out additional US troops or military assets going to the region.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said while Soleimani was "an enemy of the United States", the killing could put more Americans at risk.

"One reason we don't generally (assassinate) foreign political officials is the belief that such action will get more, not less, Americans killed," Murphy said on Twitter.

"That should be our real, pressing and grave worry tonight," he said.

Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Soleimani's death "should be applauded by all who seek peace and justice".

'Major decapitation strike'

Muhandis was the Hashed's deputy chief but widely recognised as the real shot-caller within the group.

Soleimani headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force and also served as Iran's pointman on Iraq, visiting the country in times of turmoil.

Both were sanctioned by the United States.

The Pentagon said Soleimani had been "actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region".

It said it took "decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani," but did not specify how.

Phillip Smyth, a US-based specialist in Shia armed groups, told AFP the strike would have "bigger" ramifications than the 2011 US operation that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 American raid that killed militant Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

"In terms of a decapitation strike, what just happened is the most major decapitation strike that the US has ever pulled off," said Smyth.

"There is no comparison," he added.

The developments come after an unprecedented attack on the US mission in Baghdad.

A mob of Hashed supporters surrounded the US embassy on Tuesday in outrage over American air strikes that killed 25 fighters from the network's hardline Kataeb Hezbollah faction, which is backed by Iran.

The US had acted in response to a rocket attack days earlier that had killed an American contractor working in Iraq. Trump had blamed Iran for a spate of rocket attacks targeting US forces as well as the siege at the embassy, saying: "They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat."

On Thursday, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper told reporters there could be more attacks from Iran-backed groups but vowed American forces would respond.

"We are prepared to exercise self-defence, and we are prepared to deter further bad behaviour from these groups, all of which are sponsored, directed and resourced by Iran," he said.

Oil prices soar

Ties between the US and Iran have deteriorated since Washington pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.

It then reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, aiming to choke off its oil exports.

Oil prices soared following Friday's attack, with Brent surging 4.4 per cent to $69.16 and WTI jumping 4.3 per cent to 63.84.

But the attack threatens to destabilise Iraq, which has close political and military ties with both Tehran and Washington.

The United States led the 2003 invasion against then-dictator Saddam Hussein and has worked closely with Iraqi officials since.

But its influence has waned compared with that of Tehran, which has carefully crafted personal ties with Iraqi politicians and armed factions, even during Saddam's reign.

Iraqi officials have warned in recent months that their country could be used as an arena for score-settling between Iran and the US.

A US strike killed Iran Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, the Pentagon said on Thursday, adding that Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack Americans in Iraq and the Middle East.