This photo shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad on Friday. AP
The United States killed Iran's top general and the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East in an airstrike at Baghdad's international airport on Friday, an attack that threatens to dramatically ratchet up tensions in the region.
The US is deploying up to 3,500 more troops to the Middle East in a show of force, a Pentagon official said Friday, after an American drone killed a top Iranian general.
The reinforcements will come from the 82nd Airborne Division's Global Response Force, which already supplied several hundred extra troops to the region earlier this week as tensions grew over an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.
A Defense Department spokesperson said that the 82nd Airborne's Immediate Response Force brigade had already been notified earlier this week that they could be sent to the region.
The dispatching of extra troops reflects concern about potential Iranian retaliatory action for the killing Thursday of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force. But it also runs counter to 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.
The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the US and Iran, endangering US troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The Defence Department said it killed Soleimani because he "was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region." It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
An adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani quickly warned US President Donald Trump of retaliation from Tehran.
"Trump through his gamble has dragged the US into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena wrote on the social media app Telegram. "Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”
The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, and five others, including the PMF's airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.
Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag.
The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the US House and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.
Tehran shot down a US military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The US also blames Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.
The tensions take root in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Soleimani was the target of Friday's US attack, which was conducted by an armed American drone, according to a US official. His vehicle was struck on an access road near the Baghdad airport.
A senior Iraqi security official said the airstrike took place near the cargo area after Soleimani left his plane to be greeted by Al Muhandis and others. The official said the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.
Two officials from the PMF said Suleimani's body was torn to pieces in the attack, while they did not find the body of Al Muhandis. A senior politician said Soleimani's body was identified by the ring he wore.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because they were not authorised to give official statements.
It’s unclear what legal authority the US relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without congressional approval when US personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.
Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump owes a full explanation to Congress and the American people. "The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades," Blumenthal said.
But Trump allies were quick to praise the action. "To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” tweeted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
For Iran, the killing represents more than just the loss of a battlefield commander, but also a cultural icon who represented national pride and resilience while facing US sanctions. While careful to avoid involving himself in politics, Soleimani’s profile rose sharply as US and Israeli officials blamed him for Iranian proxy attacks abroad.
While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, the Guard has built up a ballistic missile program. It also can strike asymmetrically in the region through forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The US long has blamed Iran for car bombings and kidnappings it never claimed.
Thousands of supporters of Iraqi armed factions close to Iran had massed at the embassy on Tuesday in outrage over US air strikes that killed 25 pro-Iran fighters at the weekend.
"US citizens should depart via airline while possible, and failing that, to other countries via land," the embassy said in a statement. The US strike hit outside Baghdad airport early Friday but security sources told the media it was still open to flights.
Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis at Baghdad airport on Friday, Trump issued a threat to Iran on Twitter. The strike has raised the spectre of wider conflict in the Middle East.
The killing of Quds Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between Iran and the United States, which pledged to send more troops to the region — even as President Donald Trump insisted he did not want war.
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