The United States killed Iran's top general in pre-dawn armed drone strike at Baghdad's airport on Friday — triggering warnings of a "dangerous escalation" in the region.
The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force and the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East, could spiral into a far larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
The US Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region."
It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
The attack took Congress by surprise. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox" while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned against "provocative and disproportionate actions" that could cause a "dangerous escalation."
Trump was on holiday at his company's golf resort in Palm Beach, Florida, but tweeted an American flag.
Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called it "a foolish escalation" and while the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared three days of mourning and called for a "harsh retaliation."
Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Iraqi cleric and former militia leader, said he was reactivating his former “Mahdi Army” that fought US troops during and after the 2003 invasion.
Basem Naim, a senior figure in Hamas, said the move “opens the doors of the region to all possibilities, except calm and stability.”
The US urged citizens to leave Iraq "immediately" and said all consular operations in Baghdad were are uspended. "US citizens should not approach the embassy," the State Department said.
The tensions take root in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
More recently, Tehran has seized oil tankers and shot down a U.S. military drone.
The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others, including the PMF's airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.
A senior Iraqi security official said the drone strike took place near the cargo area after Soleimani left his plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and others. The official said the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.
Two officials from the PMF said Suleimani's body was torn to pieces in the attack, while they did not find the body of al-Muhandis. A senior politician said Soleimani's body was identified by the ring he wore.
It’s unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without congressional approval when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat.
The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.
Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump owes a full explanation to Congress and the American people.
"The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades," Blumenthal said.
However, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said: "I appreciate President Trump's bold action against Iranian aggression. To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more."