Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Gen.Qassem Soleimani killed in airstrike at Baghdad airport

Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the nation’s elite Quds Force, was killed in a strike early Friday at Baghdad International Airport, the U.S. military said.

“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing [Qassem] Soleimani,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed Soleimani’s death in a statement to the country’s state-owned Tasnim news agency, saying it was the result of a U.S. helicopter strike.

Also reportedly killed was Abu Mahdi Muhandis, deputy commander of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite militia group with a long history of fighting American forces in Iraq. The Pentagon blamed the group for a deadly strike in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. civilian contractor last week. Department of Defense officials also accused Soleimani of orchestrating that rocket attack, as well as many others in recent months that have killed and wounded both American and coalition service members.

Seven people were killed in Friday’s strike, an official with an Iran-backed paramilitary force told The Associated Press, blaming the United States for the incident.

The attack reportedly happened at about 1 a.m. Social media users said they heard explosions, followed by sounds of military aircraft.

The strike was confirmed about 45 minutes later by the Iraqi government’s security information cell, which posted photos of burning vehicles near the airport on its Facebook page, attributing the damage to a rocket attack.

Early media reports said the attack was an airstrike that killed Mohammed Redha, a senior member of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units — an umbrella group that includes Kataeb Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias, as well as other groups that have fought the Islamic State group since 2014.

Other PMU members and “guests” were also killed, the PMU said at the time, fueling online speculation that Soleimani and Muhandis were among the dead.

Iraqi state television later confirmed the rumors, but observers quickly warned that the killing of such a prominent member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could lead to dramatic escalation in the region, where tension between Washington and Tehran has been mounting for months.

“Soleimani had cult hero status within IRGC and among Shia militias in the region, and was personally the most popular regime figure in #Iran,” tweeted Vali R. Nasr, professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. “The pressure to retaliate will be immense.”

The attack came days after mobs of Iran-backed militia members breached the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve, withdrawing from the area on Wednesday after a contingent of about 100 Marines arrived from Kuwait to bolster the diplomatic compound’s security.

It also came hours after Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged Iran and its proxies to stand down.

“We will not accept continued attacks against our personnel and forces,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., questioned the killing of Soleimani in a tweet before the Pentagon issued its statement confirming the general’s death.

“Did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?” he wrote.

Soleimani’s Quds Force trains, funds and equips Iranian proxy groups, including Kataeb Hezbollah and others that fought American forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Both the Quds Force and Kataeb Hezbollah are U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations.

After rocket attacks on bases housing American troops in early December — some of the 11 carried out in the past two months that have mostly wounded Iraqis — U.S. officials called on the Iraqi government to do more to prevent them and warned of decisive action if they continued.

Then, last Friday, a barrage of rockets hit the K1 base in Kirkuk, killing an American civilian contractor and wounding four U.S. and two Iraqi service members. The Defense Department countered with airstrikes targeting five Kataeb Hezbollah sites in Iraq and Syria.

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