Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, was killed in a US strike on Baghdad’s international airport, Iraq, the US confirmed on Friday.
The Pentagon said US President, Donald Trump, ordered Soleimani’s “killing,” after a pro-Iran mob this week laid siege to the US embassy.
A volley of missiles hit Baghdad’s international airport early Friday, striking a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Iran.
A few hours later, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced Soleimani “was martyred in an attack by America on Baghdad airport this morning”.
The Hashed confirmed both Soleimani and his deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were killed in what it described a “US strike that targeted their car on the Baghdad International Airport road”.
President Trump tweeted out a picture of the US flag without any explanation, as the pre-dawn developments marked the most major escalation yet in a feared proxy war between Iran and the US on Iraqi soil.
The Pentagon said Soleimani had been “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”.
It said it took “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani”. It, however, did not specify how.
President Trump later wrote on Twitter on Friday, justifying the drone strike and killing of Soleimani and his deputy.
“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught! He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself.
“While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!” the US President tweeted.
Declaring three days of mourning across the country, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to take “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, slammed the US strike as “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation”.
The US embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately”.
“Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, we urge U.S. citizens to depart Iraq immediately. Due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all consular operations are suspended. U.S. citizens should not approach the Embassy,” the US Department of State Bureau for Consular Affairs wrote on its Twitter handle on Friday.
However, there were celebrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of a three-month-old protest movement that has slammed the Iraqi government as being corrupt and too close to Tehran.
“Oh Qasem Soleimani, this is a divine victory,” demonstrators chanted as some danced in the streets.
Soleimani headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force foreign operations arm and also served as Iran’s point man on Iraq, visiting the country in times of turmoil.
Muhandis was the Hashed’s deputy chief but was widely recognised as the real shot-caller within the group.
Both were sanctioned by the US.
An Iraqi official told AFP that Muhandis had gone to Baghdad airport to pick up Soleimani, “which is something he usually doesn’t do”.
The pair will be buried on Saturday, and Iraq’s parliament is set to hold an emergency meeting on the strike on the same day.
The killing of the two senior Iranian military commanders complicates the already tense situation between the US and Iran, which are both engaging in proxy battles in Iraq.
At least 25 fighters were killed died when the US bombed bases associated with the Kataib Hezbollah militia in western Iraq and eastern Syria on Sunday.
The US said it was retaliating for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk on Friday that killed an American civilian contractor.
Protesters angered by recent US airstrikes had a few days ago attacked the US embassy in Baghdad, which is in the Iraqi’s capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone.