WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump declared Friday that a “reign of terror is over” as he marked the death of an Iranian general killed in a US strike and as the Pentagon scrambled to reinforce the American military presence in the Middle East in preparation for reprisals.
General Qassem Soleimani “made the death of innocent people his sick passion,” Trump said from his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, adding “a lot of lives would have been saved” if he’d been hunted down years ago.
“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump said in a statement before television cameras in Florida.
While referring to the Iranian military mastermind, killed in a US air attack earlier Friday in Baghdad, as “sick,” Trump attempted to lower tensions by insisting that he does not want war with Iran.
“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” he said, adding: “We do not seek regime change.”
The United States is sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Mideast in the volatile aftermath of the killing ordered by Trump, defense officials said.
Also Friday, the Pentagon placed an Army brigade in Italy on alert to fly into Lebanon if needed to protect the American embassy there, part of a series of military moves to protect US interests in the Middle East. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official said the US could send 130 to more than 700 troops to Beirut from Italy. The official was not authorized to be identified.
Reinforcements were ordered as US officials said they had compelling intelligence that Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force who was killed in the US strike, was planning a significant campaign of violence against the United States.
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon, said the new contingent of troops is from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They are in addition to about 700 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne who deployed to Kuwait earlier this week after the storming of the US embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters.
Trump said of Soleimani: “We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over.”
But the dispatching of extra troops reflects concern about potential Iranian retaliatory action for the killing. It also runs counter to Trump’s repeated push to extract the United States from Mideast conflicts. Prior to this week’s troop deployments, the administration had sent 14,000 additional troops to the Mideast since May, when it first publicly claimed Iran was planning attacks on US interests.
The reinforcements took shape as Trump gave his first comments on the strike, declaring that he ordered the killing of Soleimani because he 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 strike marked a major escalation in the conflict between Washington and Iran, as Iran vowed “harsh retaliation” for the killing of the senior military leader. The two nations have faced repeated crises since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
The United States urged its citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” as fears mounted that the strike and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the strike as “wholly lawful,” saying that Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat against the US and its interests in the region.
“There was an imminent attack,” Pompeo told Fox News. “The orchestrator, the primary motivator for the attack, was Qassem Soleimani.”
The White House did not inform lawmakers before the strike. It was expected to give classified briefings to members of Congress and staff in the afternoon. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the strike shortly before the Pentagon confirmed it publicly.
Pompeo called world leaders Friday to explain and defend Trump’s decision to order the airstrike that has sparked fears of an explosion of anti-American protests as well as more violence in the already unstable Middle East.
The State Department said Pompeo had spoken Friday with top officials in Afghanistan, Britain, China, France, Germany and Pakistan.
In his calls with the British and German foreign ministers as well as China’s state councilor, Pompeo stressed that Trump acted to counter an imminent threat to US lives in the region but also that the US is committed to “de-escalation” of tensions, according to the department’s summaries of the conversations.
De-escalation was not mentioned in the department’s summary of his call with the French foreign minister, nor in his calls with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani or the Pakistani military chief of staff. In those calls Pompeo “underscored the Iranian regime’s destabilizing actions through the region and the Trump Administration’s resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities and partners,” the department said.