Trump 'orders' killing of top Iranian military leader
US President Donald Trump directed the assassination of Iran's most powerful military figure in a significant escalation in tensions between the two nations that was expected to draw retaliation against America and its allies.
Revolutionary Guard chief General Qasem Soleimani, second in command to Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenai, was killed alongside an Iraqi militia boss in a rocket strike near Baghdad International Airport.
"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 released last night.
"General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more."
Experts described the strike, early Friday morning local time, as potentially more impactful than the US killings of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2006 and al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 2011.
General Soleimani was a US-designated terrorist and for decades headed the shadowy Quds Force, Iran's security operation likened to a cross between the CIA and Special Forces.
His death came after days of tension in Baghdad including attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad this week which the Pentagon said Soleimani had orchestrated.
Those aggressions, including a breach of the embassy perimeter on New Year's Eve by protesters chanting "death to America", spurred the deployment of an extra 750 US troops to maintain security.
They followed the murder of a US contractor in late December which prompted US strikes that took out 25 members of the Kataeb Hezbollah militia on Sunday.
The Pentagon said the attack on a road outside the airport "was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans".
Also killed was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraq-based Iranian militia force.
The strike was applauded by Trump supporters but drew stern warnings from his detractors of potential reprisal.
It marks another about-face from previous US policy, following the Trump administration's withdrawal in May 2018 from the Iran deal made by his predecessor Barack Obama and allies to limit the country's nuclear production.
Mr Trump had campaigned on a tougher stance with Iran, which he said was flouting the terms of the agreement made in return for the lifting of sanctions.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper had earlier appeared to foreshadow the attack, saying "the game has changed".
Mr Esper warned that Iran-back Shiite militias in Iraq faced military strikes and accused the Iraq government of being complicit in the anti-American activities.
Details on the strike were scarce, but the Associated Press reported Soleimani was met by al-Muhandis in a convoy at the airport after his plane arrived from either Lebanon or Syria, where he was known to command shadow operations.
At least seven people were killed in the attack, which was expected to draw retaliation from Iran and its allies against America and its interests.
"At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization," the Pentagon statement said.
Senior Democrats warned the action would potentially start a war.
"Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That's not a question," said Democrat Senator Chris Murphy.
"The question is this - as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorisation, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?"