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US airstrike kills Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani: what we know

A major escalation in tensions between the US and Iran.

Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani (center) attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran, on September 18, 2016.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

A US airstrike killed a top Iranian military official, along with at least four others, at the Baghdad airport early Friday morning, according to a Pentagon statement. The attack represents a major escalation of simmering hostilities between the US and Iran.

The death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led Iranian covert operations and intelligence and was one of the country’s most revered military leaders, was reported by Iraqi state television early Friday morning local time, according to multiple US media sources, and confirmed in a statement from the Pentagon.

“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in the statement. “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.”

The statement concluded: “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” but did not include any more evidence or details of those plans.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that the strike was “defensive” and meant to counter an “imminent attack” on CNN on Friday — but also declined to provide any corroborating information or details about which US forces or assets were being targeted in the region.

Large public displays of mourning began in Iran Friday, and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and president, Hassan Rouhani, vowed “revenge.”

“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands,” the supreme leader said in a statement.

The attack comes after days of escalating tensions. An American contractor was killed near Kirkuk, Iraq, last week, and four military members were injured in an attack by Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah. A retaliatory strike by the US killed 25 members of the militia and injured more than 50. Then, on New Year’s Eve on Tuesday, militia members attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad.

This is a developing story, and some details about the attack are still unknown. Here’s what we know and don’t know as the story unfolds.

What we know

  • Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Forces in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed in a rocket attack at Baghdad International Airport, according to US military officials and Iraqi state television.
  • The attack also killed at least four other people, including the deputy head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, the overarching group for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, according to the New York Times, citing Iraqi television and sources within the paramilitary groups.
  • Iranian state TV reported the other three members of the IRGC killed were a colonel, a major, and a captain.
  • Several other non-guard members were killed as well; five, according to Iranian state television, and at least two, according to CNN.
  • The two cars were struck while leaving the airport, via MQ-9 Reaper drones, according to the New York Times.
  • The attack came after Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned that “the game has changed” and the US would consider preemptive strikes to avert attacks.
  • Mass demonstrations of mourning took place in Iran on Friday in response to the killing. The country’s president Rouhani and supreme leader Khamenei both vowed revenge for what the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called the US’s “act of international terrorism,” and the United Nations expert on extra-judicial executions said was “most likely unlawful.”
  • President Donald Trump, whom the Pentagon says ordered the strike, trumpeted it on Twitter on Friday, saying Soleimani “should have been taken out many years ago!”
  • The State Department encouraged Americans in Iraq to leave the country “immediately,” in a statement on Twitter, and suspended consular operations.

What we don’t know

  • What, if any, Iranian attacks on US forces or interests were planned
  • How many people in total were killed and their identities
  • Whether Iran will respond militarily