General Qassim Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed in a US airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport early on Friday, a major escalation in US-Iran tensions that will roil the region.
The strike also reportedly killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF.
The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani “in a decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad”.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more,” the Department of Defence said.
After the attack, Mr Trump tweeted a picture of the American flag, without any explanation.
The killing of Soleimani is a major blow for Iran. Together with the death of al-Muhandis, the attack could mark a potential turning point in the Middle East and is expected to draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the Middle East against Israel and American interests.
Iraqi paramilitary groups said three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said Soleimani was “martyred” in an attack by US helicopters near the airport, without elaborating.
A high-level Iraqi security official told AP that al-Muhandis had arrived at the airport in a convoy to welcome Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the aircraft to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.
A PMF official said the dead also included its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.
A senior Iraqi politician told AP that Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
Both al-Muhandis and Soleimani have been sanctioned by the United States.
Soleimani, who has led the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards and has played a central role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquired celebrity status at home and abroad.
Seen as a potential future leader of Iran, he was instrumental in the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East.
He survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.
Soleimani had been rumoured dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. More recently, rumours circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack, which ended on Wednesday, prompted Mr Trump to order about 750 US soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
Mr Trump said on Tuesday that Iran would “be held fully responsible” for the attack on the embassy.
The breach at the embassy followed US airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The US military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.
US officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq – including the rocket attack on Dec. 27 that killed one American – will be met with US military force.