REUTERS: The United States killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force and spearhead of Iran’s spreading military influence in the Middle East, on Friday in an airstrike at Baghdad airport, the Pentagon and Iran said.
Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack, a militia spokesman said.
The high-profile assassinations are likely to be a massive blow to Iran, which has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the US embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following a US air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.
“At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” it added.
US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Soleimani had been killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he was killed in an attack by American helicopters.
Pictures showed burning debris on a road near the airport.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Soleimani’s assassination would strengthen resistance against the United States and Israel in the region and the world, Iranian state television reported.
“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,” Zarif said in a statement.
Iranian state television presenters wore black and broadcast footage of Soleimani peering through binoculars across a desert and greeting a soldier, and of Muhandis speaking to followers.
Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias, blamed the United States and Israel for the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.
Iraqi paramilitary groups said on Friday that three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests.”
The rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, burning two vehicles, killing and injuring several people.
Local militia commander Abu Muntathar al-Hussaini told Reuters: “Haj Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were riding in one vehicle when it was struck by two successive guided missiles launched from an American helicopter while they were on their way from the arrivals hall on the road that leads out of Baghdad Airport.”
He said the second vehicle was carrying bodyguards from the PMF and was hit by one rocket.
“The American criminals had detailed information on the convoy’s movements.”
Oil prices were up US$3 on the news.
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Who Was Qassem Soleimani?
The 61-year-old father of five didn’t give many interviews to the Iranian media; he left that to the politicians, for whom he didn’t have much respect for. He wasn’t a religious scholar and didn’t receive a religious education.
Rather, he started working at a young age, as an ordinary construction worker, to pay off a $100 debt to the shah’s government and help support his impoverished family. Later, he worked as a municipal water technician in Kerman. He isn’t even known to have participated in the demonstrations that toppled the shah in 1979.
But after the Islamic Revolution, he joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – a military force separate from the army – and fought in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.
Thanks to his strategic thinking, charisma and command abilities, he was named head of the Quds Force in 1998. The Quds Force operates outside Iran to extend the country’s influence and spread the Islamic Revolution.
Despite having had only six weeks of military training, Soleimani is considered the most influential person in the Revolutionary Guards – even more so than its commander Mohammad Ali Jafari.
The Quds Force was founded during the Iran-Iraq War as an elite unit. Its goal was to help the Kurds in their fight against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and, even more, to spread the principles of the Islamic revolution at a time when it wasn’t clear the army would remain loyal to the Iranian regime. Later, it began training forces outside Iran, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and carrying out attacks against regime opponents worldwide.
Soleimani has been linked with several attacks and attempted attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide, including the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the attack on an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2012, and sending the Karine A arms ship to the Palestinians in 2002. (It was intercepted by Israel before reaching its destination.) The latest was the failed attack on Israel Defense Forces targets along the northern border Wednesday night, which provoked an IDF response that did significant damage to the military infrastructure Soleimani has built-in Syria over the last year.
His enormous influence has even led to limited cooperation with the Americans. In spite of his involvement in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and his unconcealed loathing for the U.S., Soleimani cooperated with the Americans to elect Iraq’s interim prime minister in 2010. At the U.S.’s request, Soleimani also ordered the Mahdi Army, led by the separatist Iraqi Shi’ite Muqtada al-Sadr, to stop attacking American targets in Baghdad. And when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Iranian officials – on Soleimani’s orders – gave American representatives a map of Taliban bases to target in Afghanistan.
On at least two occasions, American forces could have killed Soleimani but refrained, due mainly to considerations of local politics and Washington’s desire to preserve the undercover cooperation with Tehran in the war against ISIS in Iraq.
Soleimani was an Iranian national hero. Khamenei even called him a “living martyr of the revolution.”
Nevertheless, in 2015, Soleimani came under criticism for his management of the war against ISIS in Iraq, which resulted in his authority being curtailed. He also failed to persuade Iraqi Kurds to let him move weapons and troops through their autonomous zone in order to assist the Syrian Army in Syria’s civil war, despite his close ties with the Kurdish government.
Soleimani had also been criticized for his management of the war in Syria. He, in turn, had repeatedly accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of mismanaging the war and complained that Syrian Army officers don’t listen to his advice. “If I had one division of Iranian Basij, I would conquer Syria,” he once said, referring to an Iranian paramilitary force subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards.
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