Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed late on Thursday in an air strike on their convoy in Baghdad airport, an Iraqi militia spokesman told Reuters.
“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias.
Iran threatened on Friday to hit back hard after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.
Soleimani, a general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, marked a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack.
Iran has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.
Responding to the strike, Iraq’s prime minister said Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country. Israel put its army on high alert and U.S. allies in Europe including Britain, France and Germany voiced concerns about an escalation in tensions.
The Pentagon said the “U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani”. Trump ordered the strike to disrupt future Iranian attack plans, it said.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he was killed in an attack by U.S. helicopters.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.
Concern about disruption to Middle East oil supplies, including shipping crude through the Gulf, pushed prices up nearly $3 a barrel. U.S. employees of foreign oil companies in Basra were preparing to leave the country, but Iraq’s oil ministry said output and exports were unaffected.
Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani. His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, he said.
In a statement carried by state television he called for three days of national mourning.
Khamenei quickly appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to replace him as Quds Force head. The force’s agenda “will be unchanged from the time of his predecessor,” Khamenei said in a statement.
Featured photo: FILE PHOTO: Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces, attends a funeral procession of Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) members, who were killed by U.S. air strikes in Qaim district, at the Green zone in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani/File Photo