Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport on Friday, Iraqi television and three Iraqi officials said.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, the officials said.
The PMF blamed the United States for an attack at Baghdad International Airport on Friday.
Pentagon later issued a statement saying, “At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
The Pentagon said the strike was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”
State television reported Soleimani’s death in a breaking news alert, citing sources from the Hashed, which is dominated by Shiite-majority factions close to Tehran.
“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.
A senior Iraqi politician and a high-level security official confirmed to the Associated Press that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were among those killed in the attack. Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with the Kataib Hezbollah, which was involved in the attack on the US Embassy this week.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.
The senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) confirmed the death of the commander of the Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a statement carried by the semi-official Fars news agency on Friday.
“Islam’s soaring commander Qassem Soleimani was martyred today after a lifetime of jihad in an attack by American helicopters,” said the statement.
Soleimani and the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, were killed in Baghdad, Fars confirmed.
Soleimani had been rumored dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. More recently, rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Earlier Friday, an official with an Iran-backed paramilitary force said that seven people were killed by a missile fired at Baghdad International Airport, blaming the United States.
The official with the group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces said the dead included its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.
A security official confirmed that seven people were killed in the attack on the airport, describing it as an airstrike. Earlier, Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which releases information regarding Iraqi security, said Katyusha rockets landed near the airport’s cargo hall, killing several people and setting two cars on fire.
It was not immediately clear who fired the missile or rockets or who was targeted. There was no immediate comment from the US.
The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack which ended on Wednesday prompted President Donald Trump to order about 750 US soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
The breach at the embassy followed US airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataib Hezbollah. The US military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the US blamed on the militia.
US officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq - including the rocket attack on December 27 that killed one American - will be met with US military force.
He said the Iraqi government has fallen short of its obligation to defend its American partner in the attack on the US embassy.
- With The Associated Press, Reuters.