The US Department of Defense confirmed late Thursday that it had carried out an airstrike in Baghdad to kill powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the head of a robust pro-Iran militia in Iraq.
At least seven people were killed in the strike at the Baghdad International Airport late Thursday night, according to Iraqi officials, including Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF.
The Pentagon said it carried out the strike at the direction of US President Donald Trump.
“At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani,” a statement said.
“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 Defense added.
Following Soleimani’s death, Trump tweeted an image of the US flag without any further explanation.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020
Iranian state television also confirmed Soleimani’s death, citing a Revolutionary Guard statement that said he was “martyred” in an attack by US helicopters near the airport, without elaborating.
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 Wednesday prompted Trump to order about 750 US soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
It also prompted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to postpone his trip to Ukraine and four other countries “to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.
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 US blamed on the militia.
US officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said 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.
He said the Iraqi government has fallen short of its obligation to defend its American partner in the attack on the US embassy.