Baghdad, Iraq(CNN)A US drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump on a Baghdad airport has killed a top Iranian commander in a major escalation in regional tensions that have pitted Tehran against Washington and its allies in the Middle East.
The Pentagon on Thursday confirmed a strike killed Qasem Soleimani, who as head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force became the architect of Tehran’s proxy conflicts in the Middle East. The strike was carried out with a drone, a US defense official told CNN.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis — the deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — was also killed, according to a statement from the PMF, which said the pair “were martyred by an American strike.”
The Trump administration viewed Soleimani as a ruthless killer, and the Pentagon on Thursday blamed him for hundreds of deaths of Americans and their allies in several attacks in recent months.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement, calling the strike “decisive defensive” action aimed at deterring future Iranian attacks.
The Pentagon blamed Soleimani and his Quds Force for attacks on coalition bases in Iraq in recent months, including the December 27 strike that culminated in the deaths of an American contractor and Iraqi personnel. He was also blamed for the December 31 US embassy attack in Baghdad, and in addition to the hundreds killed in his time as a commander, thousands more were wounded, the Pentagon said.
Intelligence showed Soleimani was in Baghdad following the embassy attack to plan future hits on US targets with Iranian proxy forces, a senior administration official told CNN. “The President made rapid and decisive decision on this,” the official said.
Another US official told CNN the strike had presidential authorization and was a “target of opportunity.” The US opted for a preemptive option after the previous “maximum pressure” moves didn’t change the Iranian pattern of behavior, the official said.
At least six people were killed in the strike, an Iraqi security source told CNN on condition of anonymity. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, said the strike targeted vehicles carrying Soleimani and al-Muhandis and that all passengers were killed.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that the strike had thwarted an “imminent” attack in the region, but he declined to give any details on the intelligence on which he based his statement.
Trump was at a dinner party in his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, eating ice cream, as news of the strike broke.
After initial reports emerged, Trump shared a cryptic tweet that consisted only of an image of the American flag. Later, Trump tweeted that Soleimani “should have been taken out many years ago” and that he was “both hated and feared” within Iran.