Touching down at Baghdad international airport shortly after midnight Friday, Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was welcomed by an old friend, Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Also waiting to greet Soleimani, however, was an American MQ-9 Reaper drone loitering miles overhead.
Upon disembarking from the plane that an Iraqi security official said arrived from either Syria or Lebanon, Soleimani and Mohammed Ridha, a senior figure in the Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary force, were whisked away from the airport in two cars.
As the vehicles headed down the airport access road, the drone unleashed four Hellfire missiles that obliterated the cars and those inside them.
Surveillance footage aired on Iraqi television appeared to show the moment of the strike, in which a large explosion could be seen as one of the vehicles was apparently hit.
Ten people were killed in the blasts, according to Iran’s state TV, including five members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Soleimani’s son-in-law.
Soleimani, who was ripped to pieces by the strike, was identified only by a large ring with a red stone he wore on his hand, photos of which were widely published.
Hashed Al-Shaabi officials said they were unable to find the body of Muhandis, according to the Daily Mail.
It would not have been difficult for the US to track Soleimani, who since 1997 has headed the Quds Force, the overseas branch of the IRGC.
An increasingly public figure
Though long a shadowy presence, the military chief’s public profile had risen dramatically in recent years, with him visiting Iran-backed militia fighters on the front lines and becoming a national hero.
He didn’t hide or live in a cave. On the contrary, he routinely traveled openly around the region, his face in full view, seen by the media.
Three months ago, he gave his first major Iranian TV interview, in which he claimed that Israeli aircraft targeted him and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
US President Donald Trump said Friday he was responsible for killing and wounding “thousands” of Americans and many more in the region “and was plotting to kill many more.”
Soleimani had an outsized influence in Iraq, where in November AFP quoted sources saying he had chaired meetings in Baghdad and Najaf to rally Iraqi politicians amid mass anti-government protests, which have seen demonstrators rail against Iran’s role in the country.
Soleimani’s killing came a week after an American contractor was killed in a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk, which the US blamed on the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah militia.
In response, the US carried out airstrikes on Kataeb Hezbollah bases in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 of the group’s fighters.
On Tuesday, pro-Iran militiamen and their supporters broke into the US embassy in Baghdad, causing damage to the enormous compound but no American injuries, before withdrawing a day later.
Trump subsequently warned Iran it would pay a “BIG PRICE” for the embassy attack, a threat he appeared to make good on with the strike the Pentagon said he ordered on Soleimani.
The US had closely followed Soleimani’s movements over the last few months and could have targeted him before.
It appears the US had been planning the strike for several days, even before the Tuesday storming of the embassy.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News he was informed by Trump while he visited him in Florida on Monday. The two played golf together.
“I was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida. I appreciate being brought into the orbit,” Graham said. “I really appreciate President Trump letting the world know you cannot kill an American without impunity.”
Trump’s son Eric also appeared to have had advance knowledge, posting a tweet Tuesday that said “Bout to open a big ol’ can of whoop ass, #DontMessWithTheBest #USAUSAUSA,” before quickly deleting it.
Don’t forget Eric Trump tweeted and deleted about opening up that can of whoopass on 12/31/19! pic.twitter.com/3CiUUkT3ZK
— imaginarybar (@imaginarybar) January 3, 2020
And some world leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been briefed ahead of the strike.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Netanyahu late Wednesday night, ostensibly to thank him for Israel’s support in efforts to combat Iran and after the attack on the US embassy in Iraq.
Tweeting Thursday morning, Netanyahu alluded to “very, very dramatic things” happening in our region.
“I want to make one thing clear: We fully support all of the steps that the US has taken as well as its full right to defend itself and its citizens,” Netanyahu wrote.
“Moreover, we know that our region is stormy; very, very dramatic things are happening in it. We are alert and are monitoring the situation. We are in continuous contact with our great friend the US, including my conversation yesterday afternoon,” the Israeli leader said.
Why now and what next?
Pompeo later said Soleimani was planning a “big action” that would have “put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.”
“We know it was imminent,” Pompeo told CNN. “This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process.”
The killing of Soleimani, who was often described as the second most powerful person in Iran, has opened a period of uncertainty for both the Middle East and the US.
Iran has promised to avenge his death. Its close ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, said punishment for those responsible will be the “task of all resistance fighters worldwide.”
Many pro-Iranian groups in the region have the capacity to carry out attacks on US bases in the Gulf as well as against petrol tankers and cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz — which Tehran could close at any moment.
They could also strike US troops and bases currently in Iraq, Syria, other American embassies in the region, and target Washington’s allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia — even countries in Europe.
The US has sent more than 14,000 troops to the region as reinforcements over recent months.
Washington announced 500 more would be sent after a pro-Iranian mob laid siege to its embassy in Baghdad this week.
And on Friday, a Pentagon official said another 3,000 to 3,500 troops would be deployed to the Middle East.
The US currently has 5,200 soldiers deployed in Iraq, officially to assist and train its army and ensure Islamic State does not reemerge as a force.
Israel was also bracing for a potential retaliation attack, with Israeli television reporting that the Defense Ministry put Israeli embassies and offices on “high alert” worldwide in the wake of Soleimani’s killing and amid Iranian threats of revenge, some of which were directed at the Jewish state.