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Tensions high after US air attack kills top Iran general

, / 05:10 AM January 04, 2020

BAGHDAD—The United States Embassy in Baghdad urged American citizens in Iraq on Friday to “depart immediately” for fear of fallout from a US strike on Baghdad’s international airport that killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani.

Carried out without consulting US lawmakers, the attack that killed Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of his country’s spreading military influence in the Middle East, was the most dramatic episode yet of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.

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“US citizens should depart via airline while possible, and failing that, to other countries via land,” the embassy said in a statement.

The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered Soleimani’s “killing’’ after a pro-Iran mob this week laid siege to the US Embassy in Baghdad.

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‘Defensive action’

“At the direction of the president, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” it added. Early Friday, a volley of missiles hit Baghdad’s international airport, striking a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Iran. The attack was carried out by US helicopters, according to Iran state television.A few hours later, the Revolutionary Guard Corps announced Soleimani “was martyred in an attack by America on Baghdad airport this morning.”

As head of the Quds Force that served as the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad. Over two decades he had been at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East.

‘Severe revenge’

The Hashed confirmed both Soleimani and its deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in what it said was a “US strike that targeted their car on the Baghdad International Airport road.”

The Hashed is a network of mostly Shiite armed units, many of whom have close ties to Tehran but which have been officially incorporated into Iraq’s state security forces.

Declaring three days of mourning across the country, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to take “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the “assassination’’ of Soleimani and al-Muhandis.

The airstrike on Baghdad airport “is an act of aggression on Iraq and breach of its sovereignty that will lead to war in Iraq, the region and the world,’’ he said in a statement.

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Congress not consulted

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic and strong critic of the Republican president, said the attack was carried out without consultation with Congress and without authorization for the use of military force against Iran.

“Tonight’s airstrike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence. America and the world cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return,” Pelosi said. “The administration has conducted tonight’s strikes in Iraq without an Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran. Further, this action was taken without the consultation of the Congress.”

Former US Vice President Joe Biden called the attack “a hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region.’’

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,’’ he said, adding that Mr. Trump should explain his strategy and plan of keeping all American people and interests safe.

“In terms of a decapitation strike, what just happened is the most major decapitation strike that the US has ever pulled off,” said Phillip Smyth, a US-based specialist in Shiite armed groups.

He told Agence France-Presse (AFP) it would have “bigger” ramifications than the 2011 US operation that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 American raid that killed Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

China on Friday appealed for restraint from all sides, “especially the United States.”

Battle-hardened militias

France said the US killing of a top Iranian military commander has made the world “more dangerous.” Russia warned the killing would raise tensions across the Middle East. The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with its stable of paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias—battle-hardened militias armed with missiles—has ample means to launch a multipronged response.

Missile, drone attacks

In September, US officials blamed Iran for a devastating missile and drone attack on oil installations of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state energy giant and world’s largest oil exporter. The Trump administration did not respond, beyond heated rhetoric and threats.

Iran, for its part, has absorbed scores of airstrikes and missile attacks, mainly carried out by Israel against its fighters and proxies in Syria and Iraq.

But analysts say Iran is likely to respond forcefully to the targeting of Soleimani, who it has built into a legend as its influence has spread across the region in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State.

Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shiite militia groups in Iraq.

Deteriorating ties

Ties between the United States and Iran have deteriorated since Washington pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.

It then reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, aiming to choke off its oil exports.

Oil prices surged and Asian stocks were mixed on Friday as news of Soleimani’s killing prompted expectations of Iranian retaliation against American and Israeli targets.

Benchmarks in Shanghai and Hong Kong declined. Australia and some Southeast Asian markets advanced. Japanese markets were closed.

“A big fat dollop of geopolitical uncertainty has landed on investors desks,” Jeffrey Halley of Oanda said in a report. Overnight, Wall Street rose to new records, boosted by technology stocks. Markets in Malaysia and Indonesia, both oil producers, gained.

There was no immediate indication how Iran would respond to Soleimani’s death, but Tehran has seized oil tankers and shot down a US military drone. —REPORTS FROM AFP, REUTERS AND AP

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TAGS: Iran, Iran General Qasem Soleimani, Iraq, Soleimani Killing, United States Embassy
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