This story was updated at 11:45 p.m.
Qasem Soleimani, the powerful leader of Iran’s security forces, was killed in a U.S. airstrike inside Iraq that Pentagon officials say was directly ordered by President Donald Trump on Thursday in retaliation for recent attacks on the American embassy and military positions there, and to prevent further Iran-sanctioned attacks.
The stunning development comes after more than a week of escalatory events in Iraq and months of warnings by the Trump administration that the United States no longer would tolerate Tehran funding and supporting terrorism, including Iranian proxies targeting Americans or American interests in the region.
Last week, Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah launched rocket attacks on an Iraqi military base, killing one American contractor. In retaliation, U.S. aircraft struck positions in Iraq and Syria, killing about two dozen. Then on Tuesday, several hundred Iranian militia and supporters attacked the outer walls and an entrance of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, prompting additional warnings from Trump administration officials.
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Several hours after the strike, Pentagon officials issued a Thursday evening statement attributed to “the Department of Defense.”
“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” the statement said.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. 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. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months—including the attack on December 27th—culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week.
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
The Trump administration long has tried to make Iran the centerpiece of its foreign policy in the Middle East. In the past year, Tehran has tested Washington’s resolve — bombing ships near the Strait of Hormuz, downing a U.S. drone, attacking a Saudi oil refinery, continuing to funnel arms into the Yemen conflict — each time stirring speculation that Trump might respond with direct military strikes on Iranian targets.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave several interviews on Thursday, first to the Pentagon press corps and later on cable television, where he pledged to defend U.S. forces from further attacks but gave no indication such a high-profile target was under consideration.
“We’ve had Iran-sponsored militia groups attacking U.S. forces now for several months,” Esper said on Fox News.
At 9:32 p.m. ET, Trump tweeted from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida an image of an American flag, with no text.
The assassination of the highly visible Soliemani drew party-line controversy from members of Congress, some of whom said that even though the Iranian leader was a designated terrorist the White House did not have authorization for such a strike.
Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben. Sasse, in a statement, said, “This is very simple: General Soleimani is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans. The President made the brave and right call, and Americans should be proud of our servicemembers who got the job done. Tehran is on edge — the mullahs have already slaughtered at least a thousand innocent Iranians — and before they lash out further they should know that the U.S. military can bring any and all of these IRGC butchers to their knees.”
Senate Foriegn Relations Committee member Tom Udall, D-New Mex., said in a statement, “President Trump is bringing our nation to the brink of an illegal war with Iran without any congressional approval as required under the Constitution of the United States. Such a reckless escalation of hostilities is likely a violation of Congress’ war making authority – as well as our basing agreement with Iraq – putting U.S. forces and citizens in danger and very possibly sinking us into another disastrous war in the Middle East that the American people are not asking for and do not support. Congress must step in immediately to reclaim its Constitutional war powers. I urge members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to show courage on this issue, and I urge the Trump administration to change course and pursue diplomacy before we are entangled in yet another war in the Middle East with no end in sight.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., tweeted, “Soleimani was responsible for unthinkable violence and world is better off without him. But Congress didn’t authorize and American people don’t want a war with Iran.”
U.S. military tensions with Iran have been growing for years. In 2015, the Pentagon officially blamed Iran for the deaths of about 200 U.S. troops killed by improvised explosive devices during the Iraq War. This year, the department increased that tally to roughly 600. In recent years, Pentagon intelligence officials have invited reporters to view evidence of Iranian-built and supplied weapons recovered from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, including ballistic missiles and IED drones and drone boats they claimed were targeted or intended to target Americans, Saudis, and other allies. But Trump’s appetite for U.S. military action in the region has been inconsistent. Some Trump administration officials had said Iran’s presence in Syria was a prime reason for U.S. military intervention there, while others insisted American troops were fighting ISIS only. Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command leaders under Trump have warned that Iran posed a serious and growing security threat to Americans, not just American interests in the region, that justified controversial support for the Saudi-led war on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, for instance.
Mostly, Trump administration policy toward Iran has been focused on ending the Obama-era multinational deal that limited Tehran’s nuclear weapons program and countering Iran’s support for terrorism across the region. Trump fulfilled a campaign promise by withdrawing from the deal in May 2018; critics of the deal said it did not do enough to limit Iran’s missile and terrorism activities. But at the same time, Iran has increased its interventions and attacks from Syria to Yemen with such a pace — while Trump continued his calls to limit United States’ intervention in the region — that critics openly questioned whether U.S. deterrence was dead.
A Trump administration attempt to build an international coalition against Iran after last summer’s ship attacks near Hormuz fell flat. In Syria, Trump severely limited U.S. post-conflict aid and the role of ground troops, and in October pulled most American troops out of the country, leaving behind only a few hundred to protect oil fields and attack the remnants of ISIS. Critics called the move a win for Iran. And last month, the administration announced that the State Department would reduce U.S. staffing at the Baghdad embassy in Iraq, right in the middle of a political battle in the country between Sunni and Shiite factions backed by Iran.
Just before 11 p.m. in Washington, Iran’s foreign minister tweeted: “The US’ act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”