The United States carried out a strike that killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, the Pentagon said Friday.
Tehran has vowed "crushing revenge" for the killing, saying that the assassination will double motivation to retaliate against the U.S. and Israel.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said it has reached a decision on how to respond to the attack, but isn’t saying what the decision is.
The council's brief statement after a special session Friday said it investigated “the different aspects of this incident and it is announcing that the United States of America is responsible for all consequences of this criminal adventure.”
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council formulates the country’s military and nuclear program strategy. However, any matter of state is finally decided by the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iranian UN Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi told the United Nations Security Council and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday in a letter that the killing of Soleimani "by any measure, is an obvious example of State terrorism and, as a criminal act, constitutes a gross violation of the fundamental principles of international law, including, in particular, those stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations."
Meanwhile, the U.S. is sending some 3,000 troops to the Middle East from the 82nd Airborne Division as a precaution amid rising threats to American forces in the region, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officials said the troops would be joining the roughly 750 forces that were sent to Kuwait earlier this week.
At a press conference, U.S. President Donald Trump said "we took action last night to stop a war, not to start a war."
He told journalists at Mar a Lago that "the world is better without the monsters" who were killed last night, and that he doesn't want war with Iran, saying: "We do not seek regime change in Iran."
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, Iraqi officials said.
Following the attack, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all citizens to depart Iraq immediately.
"At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani," the Pentagon said in a statement. "This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans," it added.
"Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack U.S. diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more," read the Pentagon statement.
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According to Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington had "clear, unambiguous" intelligence that Soleimani was planning a significant campaign of violence against the United States when it decided to strike him, and warned Soleimani's plots "might still happen."
Speaking to a small group of reporters at his Pentagon office, Milley told a small group of reporters "we fully comprehend the strategic consequences" associated with the strike against Soleimani, but he said the risk of inaction exceeded the risk that killing him might dramatically escalate tensions with Tehran.
"Is there risk? Damn right, there's risk. But we're working to mitigate it," Milley said from his Pentagon office.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a video of Iraqis allegedly "dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more," following the assasination.
Later on Friday, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, Pompeo said the strike which killed Soleimani sought to disrupt "an imminent attack," but declined to discuss many details of the alleged threat.
He said it was "an intelligence-based assessment" that drove the U.S. decision to target Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force.
"These were threats that were located in the region," Pompeo added. "Last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack ... was disrupted."
Soleimani was "actively plotting" actions that "would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk," Pompeo told CNN, echoing the Pentagon statement earlier on Thursday.
"What was sitting before us was his travels throughout the region, his efforts to make a significant strike against Americans," Pompeo said separately on Fox News. "There would have been many Muslims killed as well, Iraqis and people in other countries."
Earlier, Trump took to Twitter to claim that "Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!," seemingly suggesting a tough stance on Tehran is more effective. He added Soleimani was "directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of protesters killed in Iran itself."
In what may have been an indirect response to Trump's tweet, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Friday there are Americans and Europeans who owe their lives to Soleimani because of his efforts to defeat the Islamic State group.
Araghchi tweeted that the “American people would one day know how many lives General Soleimani has saved - including Americans and Europeans - by defeating Daesh (ISIS) in the Middle East.”
The senior diplomat suggested the plans in Washington were political, saying in his tweet that “Such reelection (mis)calculations will certainly lead to disaster.”
The assassinations are a potential turning point in the Middle East and are expected to draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the Middle East against Israel and American interests.
Soleimani is considered the main figure leading Iran's operations in the Middle East, and Israel has accused him for years of instigating terror in the region and held him responsible for killings of Israelis.
According to Iraqi reports, the assassination was carried out during a decoy airstrike in which rockets were fired at the Baghdad International Airport, while American helicopters were tracking Soleimani and al-Muhandi.
A high-level Iraqi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.
The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year's Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack which ended Wednesday prompted President Donald Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
Iranian Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Friday the assassination of Soleimani would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, state television reported.
"All enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with a doubled motivation, and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war," Khamenei said in a televised statement, in which he called for three days of national mourning.
"Soleimani's martyrdom will make Iran more decisive to resist America's expansionism and to defend our Islamic values," Iranian President Hassan Rohani said in a statement on Friday. "With no doubt, Iran and other freedom-seeking countries in the region will take his revenge."
Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said "A crushing revenge will be taken for Soleimani's unjust assassination ... We will take revenge on all those involved and responsible for his assassination," according to state news agency IRNA.
"The brutality and stupidity of American terrorist forces in assassinating Commander Soleimani ... will undoubtedly make the tree of resistance in the region and the world more prosperous," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a statement.
Zarif also took to twitter earlier and said the assassination was "an extremely dangerous and foolish escalation. The U.S. bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism."
During an interview Iranian state television, Zarif said the strike "was clearly a terrorist action ... Iran will launch various legal measures at the international level to hold America to account for Soleimani's assassination."
Islamic Jihad has issued a message mourning Soleimani's death, saying his assassination reflects U.S. crimes and its ongoing support for Israel and the occupation.
Muhammad Alhand, an Islamic Jihad official in Gaza, also said: "The U.S. administration and President Trump prove to be working for Israel. They live in the illusion that this assassination and the removal of Soleimani are creating an opportunity for strategic change for the benefit of the U.S., Israel, and their allies in the region, but this will be an opportunity to change the trend and actions against the U.S. and Israeli intervention and expansion in the Middle East."
Deputy Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Abu Ahmed Fouad also said "Soleimani is a popular commander who did not abandon the territory and supported the resistance movements in Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen." Adding that "the U.S. opened the gates of hell with his assassination."
Iran's Revolutionary Guards said that "Honored supreme commander of Islam Soleimani was martyred in attack by U.S. helicopters," Iran state media reported.
Iran's top security body will meet on Friday to discuss the "criminal" attack that killed Soleimani, its spokesman was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.
"In the next few hours, an extraordinary meeting of the Supreme National Security Council will be held to probe the criminal act of attack on commander Soleimani's car in Baghdad, which led to his martyrdom," spokesman Keyvan Khosravi said.
Israel braces for a response
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his trip to Greece and returned to Israel Friday afternoon. Before boarding the plane in Greece, he told reporters that the the U.S. has a right to defend itself and praised Trump for acting "swiftly, forcefully and decisively."
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett met with the top army brass, including Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and senior security officials, for a security assessment Friday morning at the military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Following the assessment, the army decided not to make changes to their routine or border defenses at this time.
Israel Army Radio however said the military had gone on heightened alert. Israel also raised its security alert level at its diplomatic missions overseas.
The Israeli army decided to close Mount Hermon to visitors on Friday. No other instructions were given to citizens living in the north of the country.
The U.S. State Department said Pompeo spoke with Iraq's Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi on Friday and they agreed on the need to lower tensions in Iraq and the region in the wake the strike.
"The secretary expressed his appreciation for al-Halbousi's continued partnership with the United States," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. "Secretary Pompeo and Speaker al-Halbousi agreed on the importance of reducing tensions in Iraq and the region."
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia called on Friday for self-restraint to prevent escalation after the strike, an official source told state TV.
Also, the ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement affirming the international community must fulfil its responsibilities to ensure the security of the region.
French President Emmanuel Macron also said that Iran should refrain from any provocation, adding in his statement that he had held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation in Iraq.
'The game has changed'
Soleimani survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.
Previous U.S. reports said Israel had attempted to assassinate Soleimani in 2008, when Hezbollah International Operations Chief Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in a joint operation by the CIA and the Mossad. Eventually, the Americans decided not to kill Soleimani.
The attack on Soleimani on Friday came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year's Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack which ended Wednesday prompted President Donald Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.
U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the rocket attack on December 27 that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.
He said the Iraqi government has fallen short of its obligation to defend its American partner in the attack on the U.S. embassy.
The developments also represent a major downturn in Iraq-U.S. relations that could further undermine U.S. influence in the region and American troops in Iraq and weaken Washington’s hand in its pressure campaign against Iran.