An official with an Iran-backed paramilitary force says seven people have been killed by a missile fired at Baghdad International Airport, with the United States confirming it was behind the attack.
Among those killed was Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force which is a unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards directed to carry out unconventional warfare and intelligence activities.
Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack.
The news has sent shockwaves through the international intelligence and security communities.
A response from Iran is expected to have major consequences to the free flow of the world’s oil trade and a worrying escalation of the conflict between the US and Iran.
“Hard to understate how big this is,” Joyce Karam, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, tweeted on Friday afternoon.
According to her, Soleimani was talked about as possible heir to Iran’s supreme leader.
The Pentagon says General Soleimani was responsible for numerous attacks on US soldiers and co-ordinating car bombings against US troops following the country’s occupation of Iraq in 2003. US officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against US troops after the invasion.
Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
His death is a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy towards Iran after months of tensions.
“Killing Soleimani is not like killing the head of a terrorist organisation. It’s like killing the head of a terrorist organisation and a head of state,” journalist Yashar Ali tweeted.
“You have to treat it as such and the US has not DIRECTLY engaged in assassinations on that level in decades.”
The world reacts: ‘I’m honestly terrified’
Others have reacted with horror to the implications of the news, expressing concern about how the Trump administration will handle a potential military crisis with Iran.
Kelly Magsamen, who served on the National Security Council (NSC) under George W. Bush and Barrack Obama, said she was left “terrified” by the news.
“I worked the Iran account for years at the NSC under two Presidents. I’m honestly terrified right now that we don’t have a functioning national security process to evaluate options and prepare for contingencies,” she said.
“God help us.”
Another former US intelligence officer echoed those concerns.
“Worked that account as well. I’m beyond terrified,” he replied. “One of the many options Iran has right now is to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. I don’t think people understand what will happen to oil prices if that happens.”
As the world reacts, some fear the US and Iran are now on the precipice of fully fledged war.
In some circles Suleimani talked about as possible heir to Iran supreme leader.
Whoever carried this out has opened a different phase of confrontation with Iran inside Iraq and out…
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) January 3, 2020
Qassem Soleimani was a ruthless military leader responsible for many deaths and much instability. But his assassination may lead to a further spiral of both death and instability. I fear Americans, particularly in places like Iraq and Lebanon, may become targets.
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) January 3, 2020
No one voted for this. No one authorized it. And yet here we are on the precipice of war with Iran. If we assassinated Soleimani, it’s hard to overstate just what a massive escalation and dangerous situation this President has just put us in. https://t.co/zuceW63kaw
— Krystal Ball (@krystalball) January 3, 2020
Soleimani is a clear enemy of the US. He’s responsible for innumerable atrocities in the region. The world is better off without him.
But impossible to have any confidence Trump can handle the crisis that comes next.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) January 3, 2020
Pentagon confirms Trump ordered the air strike
A security official confirmed seven people were killed in the attack on the airport early on Friday.
Earlier, Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which releases information regarding Iraqi security, said Katyusha rockets landed near the airport’s cargo hall, killing several people and setting two cars on fire.
The security official said the bodies of those killed in the airport attack were burned and difficult to identify.
The Pentagon has confirmed the strike was ordered by US President Donald Trump.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the US Department of Defence said in a statement issued Friday afternoon AEST.
The attack came amid tensions with the US after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The two-day embassy attack, which ended Wednesday (local time), prompted Mr Trump to order about 750 US soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
The breach at the embassy followed US airstrikes on Sunday (local time) that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah.
The US 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 US blamed on the militia.
US officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, telling reporters violent acts by Iran-backed Shi’Ite militias in Iraq – including the rocket attack on December 27 that killed one American – will be met with US military force.
With Reuters, AP
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