A powerful Iranian military commander was killed in a “defensive” airstrike, the U.S. Defense Department said late Thursday.
Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), was actively developing plans to attack U.S. diplomats and service members in Iraq and across the region, the Pentagon said in a statement. President Donald Trump directed the strike, according to the statement.
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the statement said.
The attack occurred right outside the Baghdad airport in Iraq, according to multiple media reports. Iranian TV on Friday morning showed photos of Soleimani accompanied by prayers.
Soleimani, who is sanctioned by the United Nations, the European Union and the U.S., was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition servicemembers, and the wounding of thousands more, the Pentagon statement said.
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who was sanctioned by the U.S. in July, condemned the strike in a social media post as an “act of international terrorism” and an “extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.” Zarif said Soleimani was “THE most effective force” against Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), al-Qaida and al-Nusra Front (which is now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham).
The strike is sure to escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran. They already have been on heightened alert in the last several days following a breach of the U.S. embassy in Iraq led by Iran-backed militias, including Kata’ib Hizballah, after a U.S. airstrike killed dozens of Iraqis. The militias on Wednesday withdrew from the embassy.
Iran’s top security body will meet Friday to discuss the “criminal” attack that killed Soleimani, its spokesman was quoted as saying by local media, according to a Reuters report.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kata’ib Hizballah and an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the strike, according to a statement on social media from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of Iran-backed Iraqi militias. Al-Muhandis, a dual Iran-Iraq citizen, was sanctioned in 2009 along with Kata’ib Hizballah.
Soleimani, who is subject to a global travel ban due to the U.N. sanctions, has flown abroad via Mahan Air, an Iranian airline, the U.S. has said. The airline, which was sanctioned in October 2011, has transported fighters, weapons and funds for the IRGC-QF and Hizballah, according to the U.S.
The IRGC-QF, the external operations component of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was designated in 2007 and has provided support to multiple terrorist groups, including Hizballah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), according to the U.S. government.
The IRGC was designated in April 2019 as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). IRGC-QF plots were uncovered and disrupted in several countries, including Germany, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kenya, Bahrain and Turkey, the U.S. said at the time. Iran-backed militias in Iraq have been a growing concern for Washington, Kharon reported in August.
The U.S. in June sanctioned South Wealth Resources Company (SWRC) and two of its associates for trafficking hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons to Iraq on behalf of IRGC-QF for the militias, and generating profit in the form of commissions to al-Muhandis.
Analysts from the Iran and Counterterrorism/Middle East teams contributed to this report.