(CNSNews.com) – Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force and considered in the West as arguably the most powerful man in Iran, was killed overnight in a U.S. airstrike on a convoy near Baghdad Airport.
Also killed, according to reports from Iraqi politicians and outlets close to Iran and its proxies, was Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a deputy to Soleimani and senior leader in Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), the Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militia targeted in U.S. military strikes last Sunday.
A Department of Defense statement confirmed the strike.
“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” it said.
At 9:32 PM EST, President Trump posted on his Twitter feed – without further comment – an image of the American flag.
“General Qassem Soleimani has been martyred by the U.S. helicopters after lifetime efforts,” the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency quoted the IRGC as saying in a statement.
“The U.S. bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” tweeted Iran’s “moderate” foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
The airstrike came at tense time, with threats of retaliation on the U.S. for the strikes on the KH bases, two days of violent protests targeting the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, and the deployment to the region of some 750 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon statement said. “General Soleimani and his Qods Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
The Pentagon also accused Soleimani of having orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over recent months, including the one in Kirkuk on December 27 that killed an American civilian contractor, prompting the U.S. strikes on KH bases.
“General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that occurred this week.”
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” it said. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
Earlier, Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a statement warned Iran and its proxy militias like KH: “[W]e will not accept continued attacks against our personnel and forces in the region. Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing. We urge the Iranian regime to end their malign activities.”
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted in response to the incidents at the embassy, “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”
‘Bigger than taking out Osama bin Laden’
“Make no mistake – this is bigger than taking out Osama Bin Laden,” tweeted Ranj Alaaldin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha, in reaction to Thursday’s reports.
“Qassem Soleimani was an arch terrorist with American blood on his hands,” tweeted former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. “His demise should be applauded by all who seek peace and justice. Proud of President Trump for doing the strong and right thing.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted, “Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question.”
“The question is this – as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
For two decades, Soleimani has been head of the Qods Force, the IRGC division organization responsible for terrorist operations abroad.
U.S. military officials accused the Qods Force of arming and supporting Iraqi Shi’ite militias, like KH, during the Iraq War, providing particularly lethal types of roadside bombs that killed hundreds of coalition and Iraqi troops, as well as Iraqi civilians.
Soleimani’s Qods Force has also provided assistance and weapons to the Taliban, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, according to the Treasury Department.
More recently, Soleimani oversaw operations of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella of mostly Shi’ite militias including KH, formed in 2014 to help Iraqi government troops fight ISIS. He also led the Iranian regime’s efforts to prop up the Assad regime in Syria
Soleimani was designated three times under a U.S. executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists – first in 2007, to punish the Qods Force and broader IRGC for supporting terrorism and nuclear activities; in May 2011, for supporting the Assad regime’s repression; and in October 2011, when he was one of five Iranians designated for their roles in an aborted Qods Force plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. by bombing a restaurant in Washington.
During an Oct. 2011 U.S. House Homeland Committee subcommittee hearing on Iranian terrorism, a former U.S. Army vice chief of staff and a former CIA operative both suggested that Soleimani be assassinated, prompting an outraged response from Tehran.
In 2018, Trump tweeted a warning to Iran about impending sanctions – “Sanctions are coming” – employing Game of Thrones-styled imagery.
Soleimani then responded in similar fashion on his Instagram account, posting a photo of himself with the tag, “I will stand against you.”
Last March, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awarded Soleimani Iran’s highest military honor, and expressed the hope Soleimani would die as a martyr – but “not too soon.”
‘Specially designated global terrorist’
Muhandis, a top PMF military leader, was one of four men identified by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter on Wednesday as having been present during the attack on the embassy compound in Baghdad.
“The attack today was orchestrated by terrorists – Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and Qays al-Khazali – and abetted by Iranian proxies – Hadi al Amari and Faleh al-Fayyad,” Pompeo tweeted. “All are pictured below outside our embassy.”
The U.S. government designated KH as a foreign terrorist organization in 2009, and Muhandis (aka Jamal Ibrahimi) was on the same day labeled a “specially designated global terrorist,” for allegedly committing, directing or supporting acts of violence against coalition and Iraqi forces.
The Treasury Department designation described Muhandis as “an advisor” to Qods Force chief Soleimani.
It also noted Muhandis’ participation in bombings targeting Western embassies in Kuwait and the attempted assassination of Kuwait’s emir of Kuwait in the early 1980s – crimes for which Muhandis was later convicted in absentia.
U.S. military commanders hold KH and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), another Qods Force proxy in Iraq, responsible for the deaths of around 500 U.S. military personnel in Iraq between 2005 and 2011.
Six months before the Obama administration formally withdrew the last U.S. troops at the end of 2011, Muhandis’ KH claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack of that year. Five 1st Infantry Division soldiers were killed in the June 6 assault on a base near Baghdad Airport. A sixth soldier later died of his injuries.