Iran vows revenge and 'harsh retaliation' after U.S. kills its top general

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By Alexander Smith  with NBC News World News
Image: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with the commander of t
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, attending a religious ceremony in Tehran.   -   Copyright  AFP - Getty Images file

Iran vowed to seek revenge on the United States on Friday after an American airstrike killed one of the country's most powerful military and political figures.The U.S. bombing near Baghdad airport killed Qassim Suleimani, the high-profile commander of Iran's secretive Quds Force and sometimes described as the country's second most influential person."The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted after the news was confirmed.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a "harsh retaliation is waiting for the criminals whose filthy hands spilled his blood." The country's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called the U.S. strike "an act of state terrorism and a violation of Iraq's sovereignty."Suleimani was one of the most influential figures in the Middle East, having developed a network of powerful militia groups whose clandestine reach stretched into Iraq, Syria and beyond.His death is a major escalation in the recent tensions between Washington and Tehran, and on Friday morning local time the State Department urged all U.S. citizens "to depart Iraq immediately" because of the increased risk.The strike was directed by President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the administration to immediately brief lawmakers. She said the bombing was carried out without "authorization for use of military force" against Iran and without the consultation of Congress.Multiple domestic U.S. law enforcement agencies said they were keeping a watchful eye on events overseas and will adjust as appropriate according to intelligence.

Iran\'s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard\'s Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, attending a religious ceremony in Tehran.
Iran\'s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard\'s Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, attending a religious ceremony in Tehran.AFP - Getty Images file

The strike was met with caution by the United Kingdom, one of the U.S.'s biggest allies that in the past has backed it in the Middle East and elsewhere."We have always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds Force led by Qassim Suleimani," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. "Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests."Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cutting short his visit to Greece and was due back in Israel Friday.As well as Iran's most senior general, Suleimani also held huge political clout, with many considering his influence second only to that of the supreme leader himself.His Quds Force is classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and others. The Iranian militias he cultivated are "responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more," according to the Department of Defense confirming his death early Friday local time.Another man, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, said to be the deputy of the militias' umbrella group and a close adviser to Suleimani, was also killed in the U.S. airstrike, according to Iraqi television reports.The deaths drew strong censure from Iraq's caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who expressed his "utmost condemnation the American administration's assassination of the two martyrs" and called them "great symbols in achieving victory against the terrorist group ISIS."The U.S. has around 5,000 troops in Iraq at the invitation of the government, their brief to assist government troops in the fight against the Islamic State militant group.The country's prime minister called Suleimani's killing "a flagrant violation of the conditions for the presence of the American forces in Iraq,'' pointing out that "its role is limited to training Iraqi forces and fighting ISIS within the international coalition forces, under the supervision and approval of the Iraqi government."But the airstrikes also prompted celebrations in Baghdad's Tahrir Square Friday, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting that the Iraqis were "dancing in the street for freedom."

In recent months protests have erupted in the Iraqi capital. The demonstrators are angry at corruption and unemployment but also what they see as the complicity of neighboring Iran in their affairs.Suleimani was a key figure in his country's involvement in Syria, where it was allied with Russia in supporting President Bashar Assad.Russia's foreign ministry called his killing "an adventurist step" by the U.S. that would lead to increased tensions throughout the region, according to the Interfax news agency.Meanwhile China urged "all parties concerned, especially the United States, to maintain calm and restraint and to avoid the further escalation of tension," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press briefing Friday.