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US boosts Middle East troop numbers as Iran vows revenge over general’s death

The air strike ordered by President Donald Trump in Iraq’s capital Baghdad killed General Qassem Soleimani.

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, meets family of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the US airstrike in Iraq (AP)
In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, meets family of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the US airstrike in Iraq (AP)

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Zeina Karam, Zeke Miller, Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor, Associated Press

The United States is sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Mideast as reinforcements in the volatile aftermath of the killing of an Iranian general in a strike ordered by President Donald Trump, defence officials have said.

The officials said the troops are 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.

The dispatching of extra troops reflects concern about potential Iranian retaliatory action for the killing on Thursday of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force.

But it also runs counter to Mr 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.

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A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the US airstrike (VAhid Salemi/AP)

The reinforcements took shape as Mr Trump gave his first comments on the strike, declaring that he ordered the killing of Iranian General Qassem 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 Mr 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 Mr Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat against the US and its interests in the region.

“There was an imminent attack,” Mr Pompeo told Fox News.

“The orchestrator, the primary motivator for the attack, was Qassem Soleimani.”

The White House did not inform politicians before the strike.

It was expected to give classified briefings to members of Congress and staff in the afternoon.

US defence secretary Mark Esper notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the strike shortly before the Pentagon confirmed it publicly.

Mr Pompeo called world leaders on Friday to explain and defend Trump’s decision to order the air strike 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 Mr Pompeo had spoken on 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 councillor, Mr Pompeo stressed that Mr 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 Mr Pompeo “underscored the Iranian regime’s destabilising actions through the region and the Trump Administration’s resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities and partners,” the department said.

Mr Trump opted not to play a round of golf on Friday, and he was not expected to be seen publicly until he travels to Miami for an afternoon event for his reelection campaign.

The 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 already 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.

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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