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Iranian general was ‘plotting to kill many Americans’, claims Trump

General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed at Baghdad’s international airport.

Donald Trump (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Donald Trump (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Zeina Karam, Associated Press

Donald Trump has said a top Iranian general killed in a US air strike near Baghdad’s airport was targeted because he was was “plotting to kill” many Americans.

“He should have been taken out many years ago!” the US president tweeted, as Iran vowed “harsh retaliation” for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, who had been the architect of its interventions across the Middle East.

The killing of Gen Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the stand-off between Washington and Tehran, which has gone from one crisis to another since Mr Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

Washington said it was sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East and urged American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” following Friday’s air strike at Baghdad’s international airport, which killed Gen Soleimani and nine others, Iran’s state TV reported.

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, where they mainly train Iraqi forces and help to combat Islamic State militants.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the US, calling Gen Soleimani the “international face of resistance”.

He declared three days of public mourning and appointed Major General Esmail Ghaani, Gen Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talks with Qassem Soleimani (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and vowed his country would “take revenge”.

Thousands of worshippers in the Iranian capital Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, chanting “Death to deceitful America”.

The targeted strike, and any retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the region, endangering US troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Gen Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

However, the attack may act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Oil prices surged on news of the air strike while markets were mixed.

The killing promised to 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.

The US Defence Department said it killed 62-year-old Gen Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”. It also accused him of approving the violent protests at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried by a US drone, according to an American official.

Gen Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said. The blast tore his body to pieces along with that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

Iran’s state TV said 10 people were killed, including five Revolutionary Guard members and Gen Soleimani’s son-in-law, whom he did not identify.

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A burning vehicle at the airport after the air strike (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/AP)

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 has 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 Friday’s strike said it restored US deterrence power against Iran, and Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham tweeted.

“Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” Mr Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in a tweet.

Others, including Democratic White House hopefuls, criticised Mr Trump’s order. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the president 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”.

PA

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