Iran’s supreme leader has vowed to avenge the US’s killing of Qassem Soleimani, head of the country’s clandestine overseas forces, in a major escalation of hostility between Washington and Tehran in the Middle East.
Ali Khamenei vowed a “harsh” response to the assassination of Soleimani, commander of an elite branch of the Revolutionary Guards called the Quds Force. US officials said the killing, by what appeared to be an airstrike near Baghdad’s international airport, was ordered by president Donald Trump.
The Pentagon said it acted to take out Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general in Iraq, “at the direction of the president”. “The US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani,” a statement said, calling it a way to deter “future Iranian attack plans.”
The death of the Iranian general will likely have major consequences. He has been described as the equivalent of the head of Iran’s Joint Special Operations Command. Assassinating him in Iraq alongside Muhandis will likely provoke Iraqi Shia militias loyal to Iran. It also puts pressure on the fragile Baghdad government, which is in flux after the announced resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and pressed by patrons in both Washington and Tehran to do their bidding.
Mahdi was quick to condemn the killing, saying it would “spark a devastating war in Iraq” and describing it as a breach of the deal that permits US presence in the country. He further called on parliament to convene an extraordinary session.
Soleimani, 62, had previously been in the sights of US and Israeli forces throughout the Middle East, but in each instance leaders had refrained from killing him for lack of a plan to deal with possible unintended consequences, Western intelligence and security officials have said.
The US claimed Soleimani, who was an architect of Tehran’s regional military operation, had “orchestrated” attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the past few months and approved the attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad earlier this week. But experts in Iran and abroad have said Soleimani had become more of a figurehead in recent years, posing for photos on social media and making public speeches, as younger officers took on nitty gritty and operational tasks.
A trove of leaked documents from Iran’s intelligence ministry obtained by The Intercept suggested many Iranian security were tired of his ways, and that he was more of an inspirational celebrity in Iraqi Shia and Iranian pro-government circles than in charge of day-to-day planning. But Soleimani also continued to play a key role in pressing Iraqi government officials, especially brokering deals between Shia factions.
He was Iran’s most recognisable and feared field commander and rose to prominence in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. He was responsible for fighters in Syria shoring up support for President Bashar Assad against the rebels and Isis. He also played a role in propping up Shia militias that launched deadly attacks on US troops in Iraq.
Tensions between Iran and the US spiked after Mr Trump tore up the 2015 nuclear deal forged by President Barack Obama and other world leaders. The US has launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” meant to destroy the Iranian economy and bring Tehran back to the negotiating table to discuss a new deal. Iran has refused to budge, instead allegedly launching attacks on US allies in the region.
Those attacks could now escalate. Though Soleimani was considered a terrorist menace by the US, he is considered heroic by some of America’s adversaries in the region, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and possibly elements within Yemen’s Houthis. Soleimani was also close to Iran’s supreme leader, frequently appearing at his side during public events and religious ceremonies.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that Washington “bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism”.
“The US act of international terrorism, targeting and assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation,” he said on Twitter. It remains unclear how Iran will respond. In Mr Trump, Iran faces an unpredictable adversary, who wavers between calls for talks and violent bluster. But Iran too has shown it is willing to respond to escalation with its own escalations.
“While America dominates the world in terms of conventional military force, Iran’s advantage is in the asymmetric sphere, so rocket attacks, bombings, assassinations and even attacks like the missile assault on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019,” Middle East Institute scholar Charles Lister wrote.
Muhandis was deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Iraqi officials reported five others were also killed, including the PMF’s airport protocol officer, Mohammed Rida.
Among Iraqi supporters of the paramilitary forces, there was widespread anger.
“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for the militias, which are an official part of the Iraqi security forces.
Local militia commander Abu Muntathar al-Hussaini told Reuters that Soleimani and Al-Muhandis were riding in the same vehicle when it was “struck by two successive guided missiles launched from an American helicopter”.
They were apparently on their way from the arrivals hall on the road that leads out of Baghdad Airport. He said the second vehicle was carrying bodyguards from the PMF and was hit by one rocket.
“The American criminals had detailed information on the convoy’s movements,” the local commander said.
Iraqi paramilitary groups had said earlier on Friday projectiles had hit Baghdad International Airport’s air cargo terminal, burning two vehicles, killing and injuring several people. The US embassy in Baghdad ordered all US citizens to “depart Iraq immediately” following the strike.