Baghdad, January 3: Top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani was killed Friday in a US strike on Baghdad’s international airport, Iran and the US confirmed, in the most dramatic episode yet of escalating tensions between the two countries. The deputy leader of a mainly Shi’ite Iraqi militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the post-midnight strike.
The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered Soleimani’s “killing,” after a pro-Iran mob this week laid siege to the US embassy. Trump did not acknowledge the strike but tweeted a picture of the US flag without any explanation.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to take “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death. “Martyrdom was the reward for his ceaseless efforts in all these years,” Khamenei said on his Farsi-language Twitter account in reference to Soleimani, also declaring three days of mourning.
“With him gone, God willing, his work and his path will not be stopped, but severe revenge awaits the criminals who bloodied their foul hands with his blood and other martyrs’ in last night’s incident.”
Some geopolitical experts said the killing of Soleimani would have wide ramifications, perhaps more than even the 2011 strike against al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 slaying of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “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 AFP it would have “bigger” ramifications than the 2011 US operation that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 American raid that killed Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“There is no comparison,” he added.
Early Friday, a volley of missiles hit Baghdad’s international airport, striking a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary force with close ties to Iran.
Just a few hours later, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps announced Soleimani “was martyred in an attack by America on Baghdad airport this morning.”
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.
The units joined forces to fight the Islamic State group in 2014, after many of them built up years of fighting experience during Iraq’s war years, including against the US.
Muhandis was the Hashed’s deputy chief but widely recognised as the real shot-caller within the group.
Soleimani headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and also served as Iran’s pointman on Iraq, visiting the country in times of turmoil.
Analysts said it is unclear how Iran could respond to the blow. “A lot of the focus is on what is the price that the US is gonna pay and how Iran will retaliate against the US,” said Fanar Haddad of the Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.
Oil prices soared following Friday’s attack, with Brent surging 4.4% to $69.16 and WTI jumping 4.3% to 63.84. (AFP)