Killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was an act of self-defense, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said.
Asked if he was willing to suspend the campaign against ISIS in order to take out Soleimani, Esper told reporters on Monday that there was “an escalation of attacks by Iranian proxy groups, Kataeb Hezbollah being the primary one, attacking our forces.”
“It peaked; it picked up. I’ve talked to you all about it in the October, November timeframe, nearly a dozen attacks over two months, escalating in both size and scale, and the type of weapons used. And then the one on the 27th or 29th, I can’t recall the date, is when it killed an American and wounded soldiers,” Esper added.
“Followed up by firing 31 rockets. Thirty-one rockets weren’t designed to harass but were designed to kill people and destroy things. And then, of course, we had the siege of the embassy. So this isn’t a matter of taking a choice over it. It’s a matter of self-defense and our right of self-defense to protect our people. We have thousands of Americans on the ground in Iraq, they’re assisting the Iraqi military and Iraqi government improve its security, improve its stability, improve its capability to defeat ISIS.”
Soleimani was the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force and was responsible for killing a slew of Americans over the years. A U.S. airstrike killed him near Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 2.
Esper also hit back at a report from The New York Times, which cited anonymous sources in claiming military leaders put a strike against Soleimani on the table thinking President Donald Trump wouldn’t choose the option.
“We didn’t put any option on the table that we didn’t believe in and that we couldn’t execute,” he said. “And with each option we present the pros and cons, the cost and benefits. That’s what we do all the time. That’s my duty, my obligation. That’s his duty and obligation as well.”
Another reporter asked how military leaders expect Iran to deescalate after one of their top military officers was killed.
“How do you expect us not to respond after they’ve been killing our people for 20 years? Soleimani alone has the blood of hundreds of Americans. He’s wounded thousands of Americans and coalition partners,” Esper replied.
“So somehow them turning this around, he is a terrorist, a leader of terrorist organization who’s been killing and attacking Americans for 20 some years. And the blood is on his hands. He was planning attacks on American forces. He was there on the ground with the leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, met him on the ground at the airplane, welcomed him so they can further coordinate attacks. This whole narrative that’s being turned around is silly.”
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, added: “So you’ve got a very long history here of a guy. We know his history. Importantly we knew his future. I’m not going to go into the details of that, and I know that a lot of people are out there—I’ve seen words like, oh, the intel was ‘razor thin.’ Very, very few people saw that intelligence. He and I saw that intelligence.”
“And I will be happy, when the appropriate time comes in front of the proper committees and anybody else, through history and every—I’ll stand by the intelligence I saw, that—that was compelling, it was imminent, and it was very, very clear in scale, scope,” he added. “Did it exactly say who, what, when, where? No. But he was planning, coordinating, and synchronizing significant combat operations against U.S. military forces in the region and it was imminent.”