Iran has vowed “harsh retaliation” Friday for an overnight U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed Tehran’s top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.
The killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Iran, which has careened from one crisis to another since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
The United States urged its U.S. citizens to leave Iraq “immediately.” The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and other protesters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.
Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq, where they mainly train Iraqi forces and help to combat Islamic State militants.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.”
Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death, and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the elite Quds force.
The Iranian government has also declared three days of public morning.
Iran also summoned the Swiss charges d’affaires, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to protest the killing.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the strike “an act of state terrorism and violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
The killing, and any forceful retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.
However, the brazen killing may itself act as a deterrent, with fears of an all-out war leading Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response.
Oil prices surged on news of the killing and markets were mixed.
The 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 orchestrated violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. A PMF official said the strike killed a total of eight people, including Soleimani’s son-in-law, whom he did not identify.
The killing promised to strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is closely allied with both Washington and Tehran. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq” and a “blatant attack on the nation’s dignity.”
He also called for an emergency session of parliament to take “necessary and appropriate measures to protect Iraq’s dignity, security and sovereignty” on Saturday, when funerals will be held in Baghdad for al-Muhandis, the militia commander, and the other slain Iraqis.
Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, called on “the resistance the world over” to avenge Soleimani’s killing.
In the Gaza Strip, the ruling Hamas militant group offered its “sincerest condolences” to Iran, saying Soleimani had “played a major and critical role in supporting Palestinian resistance at all levels.”
There was no immediate reaction from Israel, which views Iran as its greatest threat. Authorities closed the Mount Hermon ski resort near the borders with Lebanon and Syria as a precaution but didn’t announce any other security measures.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he was cutting short a trip to Greece to return home and follow “ongoing developments.”
The Syrian government, which has received key support from Iran throughout the civil war, also condemned the strike, saying it could lead to a “dangerous escalation” in the region.