Iran has promised to seek revenge for a US air strike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, as the US said it was sending thousands more troops to the region amid soaring tensions soared in the wake of the killing.
The death of General 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.
On Friday, another air strike almost 24 hours after the one that killed Soleimani hit two cars carrying Iran-backed militia north of Baghdad, killing five people, according to an Iraqi official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces confirmed the strike, saying it targeted one of its medical convoys near a stadium in Taji, north of Baghdad. The group denied any of its top leaders were killed.
The targeted strike against Soleimani, and any retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering US 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.
“We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Mr Trump said of Soleimani.
Still, the United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation for the killing.
The US also urged American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” following the early morning air strike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.
The State Department said the US 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.
Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State group militants.
US embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.
The US announcement about sending more troops came as Mr Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran.
“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Mr Trump said, adding he was not seeking regime change in Iran.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “harsh retaliation” after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.”
Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Major General 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 said his country would “take revenge”. Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass onto Washington.
At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) January 3, 2020
Iranian Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the US attack a “cowardly terrorist action” and said Iran has the right to respond “in any method and any time”.
Thousands of worshippers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America”.
However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Mr Trump said possible targets had been identified and the US was prepared.
Oil prices surged on news of the air strike and markets were mixed.
The flag of General Soleimani in defense of the country's territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism and extremism in the region will be raised, and the path of resistance to US excesses will continue. The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) January 3, 2020
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 US forces out.
The Defence 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 orchestrated violent protests at the US embassy in Baghdad.
Iran’s state TV said on Friday 10 people were killed in the drone strike, including five Revolutionary Guard members and Soleimani’s son-in-law.
The attack comes at the start of a year in which Mr 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 Mr Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Since then, Tehran shot down a US military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The US 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 the strike against Soleimani said it restored US deterrence power against Iran.
Others, including Democratic White House hopefuls, criticised Trump’s order. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox”, saying it could leave the US “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East”.
The US' act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.
The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 3, 2020
Mr Trump, who was holidaying at his private club in Florida, said he ordered the air strike because Soleimani had killed and wounded many Americans over the years and was plotting to kill many more.
“He should have been taken out many years ago,” he added.
The potential for a spiralling escalation alarmed US allies and rivals alike.
The European Union warned against a “generalised flare-up of violence”. Russia condemned the killing, and fellow Security Council member China said it was “highly concerned”. Britain and Germany noted Iran also bore some responsibility for escalating tensions.
While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, Iran can strike 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 on Friday that it had held a special session and made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond, but didn’t elaborate.