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Iran's Qassem Soleimani killed in US strike on Baghdad airport

Iraqi militia deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis also dead in attack claimed by Washington
A destroyed vehicle is shown on fire following the US strike on Baghdad's international airport on Friday morning (AFP)

Iran's top general Qassem Soleimani has been killed alongside the deputy head of Iraq's powerful Tehran-backed militia group in a strike on Baghdad's international airport, Iran and the United States have confirmed.

"The Revolutionary Guards announces that the glorious commander of Islam, haj Qasem Soleimani, following a life of servitude, was martyred in an attack by America on Baghdad airport this morning," said a statement read out on Iranian TV.

The Pentagon confirmed its forces had killed Soleimani, saying in a statement that the strike, which had been carried out "at the direction of the president", was "aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans".

Soon after the news broke, Donald Trump posted a cryptic tweet of an American flag without any comment.

Early on Friday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that "severe revenge" awaits the killers of Soleimani.

And Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the assassination an "act of international terrorism".

"The US' act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani-THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al-is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation," Zarif said.

"The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism."

Iraq's militia leader turned populist politician Moqtada al-Sadr reactivated his Mahdi Army on Friday following the US strike.

Taking to Twitter, Sadr ordered "fighters, particularly those from the Mahdi Army, to be ready" following the strike, reactivating the anti-American force nearly a decade after he dissolved it.

Zarif's US counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, later posted a video of Iraqis cheering in the streets, commenting: "Iraqis - Iraqis - dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more."

The assassinations of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Iraqi militia grouping, are likely to have profound consequences in Iraq, Iran and across the region.

As head of the Quds force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's overseas arm, Soleimani is credited as the architect of much of Iran's expanding influence in recent years. He has helped direct Iranian allies and forces in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

Muhandis, meanwhile, is the Hashd al-Shaabi's most influential leader, despite being its deputy head.

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Soleimani's death comes at a time of extreme heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, particularly following deadly US air strikes on Iraqi militia bases and the subsequent violent assault on the United States' embassy in Baghdad.

The US air strikes came in response to an unclaimed rocket attack last week on an air base in northern Iraq's Kirkuk that killed an American defence contractor.

Soleimani and Muhandis were reportedly in a convoy at Baghdad airport when three rockets struck the site and torched two cars. Five people and two "guests" were killed in the strike, the Hashd al-Shaabi said. Several others were wounded.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday that the US government suspects Iran, or groups it supports, may be planning attacks on US interests in the Middle East that could prompt Washington to take "preemptive action".

"There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks," Esper said during a news conference.

"If we get word of attacks or some type of indication, we will take preemptive action ... to protect American forces and to protect American lives," Esper said.

Presidential candidates weigh in

Several Democratic presidential candidates expressed reservations about the strike.

"President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox, and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy and plan to keep safe our troops and embassy personnel, our people and our interests," former Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement.

For his part, Senator Bernie Sanders rebuked Trump for the assassination.

"Trump's dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars," Sanders said.

"Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one."

'Trump's dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars'

- Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate

Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called the hit a "reckless move", saying that Washington's priority should be to avoid war. 

"Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans," she said.

"But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war."

'Standing up for America'

Many Democrats also questioned whether Trump had the legal authority to carry out the strike without the approval of Congress.

"I do not want war with Iran, and neither do the American people," Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

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"The American people deserve to know why President Trump has brought us to the brink of another war and under what authorization," he added.

Congressman Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he does not grieve for the Iranian general, but he voiced concern over the possibility of retribution by Iran.

"And we are now again on the brink of direct confrontation in the Middle East," Engel said in a statement. "Tonight's action represents a massive escalation in our conflict with Iran with unpredictable consequences."

Commenting on the assassination, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Trump ally, thanked the US president for what he called "standing up for America". 

"Wow - the price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically," Graham said. 

"Major blow to Iranian regime that has American blood on its hands. Soleimani was one of the most ruthless and vicious members of the Ayatollah's regime. He had American blood on his hands."

'Game-changer'

For his part, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, was quick to question the assassination late on Thursday.

"Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question," Murphy wrote on Twitter.

"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?"

Conversely, Democratic Congressmen Ted Deutch, who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, appeared to welcome the strike.

"Soleimani was responsible for thousands of deaths, including US troops killed by Iranian-made IEDs in Iraq. He personally directed Iranian proxies to attack US & our allies," Deutch wrote.

Fellow House Democrat Seth Moulton called on Trump to explain his strategy to Congress. He said leaving the Iran nuclear deal has only increased Iranian attacks on US troops in the region and empowered hardliners in Tehran.

"Qasem Soleimani was an enemy of the United States with American blood on his hands. But the question we've grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create," Moulton said in a statement.

"That’s an open question tonight as we await Iran’s reaction to Donald Trump’s escalation, which could ignite a regional war, with still no strategy from the Administration."

'No doubt there will be a retaliation. The Iranian regime would not want to give the impression that it has a weak hand in this critical juncture'

- Joe Macaron, analyst

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said the hit is largely based on the available intelligence, "and Trump approved pulling the trigger".

"No doubt there will be a retaliation. The Iranian regime would not want to give the impression that it has a weak hand in this critical juncture," Macaron told Middle East Eye.

He called the assassination a "game-changer" that may end the era of war by proxies and usher a new phase in the US-Iranian power competition. 

"It is an evolving situation, but Iraq and the Gulf might be the potential targets… Iran has now a choice to make by deciding the depth, timing and place of its retaliation," Macaron said.

'Tactical and strategic capabilities'

Soleimani, who first rose to prominence in the military during the Iran-Iraq war, is a close ally and confidant of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini.

He has been head of the Quds force since 1998 and has become a household name in Iran and abroad since playing a key role fighting in Syria and Iraq.

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Mowaffak al-Rubaie, national security advisor to former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the Iranian had three main characteristics:

"Frighteningly intelligent, ideologically driven and, most of all, with the quite rare [possession of] both tactical and strategic capabilities."

These traits and his success made him the target of several western, Gulf Arab and Israeli assassination plots, which failed to kill the commander despite his regular appearances across the region.

In Syria, he helped shore up President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against rebel groups, while in Iraq he was seen briefly fighting on the same side as the US as he led the Iraqi militias in their battle against the Islamic State group.