Soleimani, Iran’s top general and the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East, was killed by a U.S. airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning local time, Iraqi TV and three Iraqi officials confirmed.
Pompeo’s post shows footage of people running through the streets, cheering as they carry the national flag of Iraq after Soleimani’s death. The tweet, which is flooded by ensuing comments that appear to also celebrate the death of Soleimani, reads: “Iraqis—Iraqis—dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more.”
Iraqis — Iraqis — dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more. pic.twitter.com/huFcae3ap4
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 3, 2020
Soleimani’s death came shortly after reports emerged about at least three Katyusha rockets fired at an Iraqi military base that was housing U.S. and Iraqi counterterrorism forces, located near Baghdad International Airport.
Soleimani, 62, is considered the architect behind Iran’s elite Quds Force—an elite unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that is tasked with Iran’s extra-territorial military operations—including activities to expand Iranian influence in Syria and rocket attacks on Israel.
The United States in April 2019 designated Iran’s IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). It marked the first time that the United States designated part of a foreign government as a terror group. The State Department announced at the time that the FTO designation “highlights that Iran is an outlaw regime that uses terrorism as a key tool of statecraft and that the IRGC, part of Iran’s official military, has engaged in terrorist activity or terrorism since its inception 40 years ago.”
Officials who confirmed Soleimani’s death said the strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Iran-backed Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF, formed in 2014 with about 140,000 members in total, is an Iraqi government-sanctioned state umbrella group spanning about a dozen militia groups—most of the groups, however, are mostly backed by Iran.
Months-Long Protests in Iraq
Widespread protests in Iraq have been happening since October and have seen thousands of local Iraqis taking to the streets in Baghdad. The protesters accused the government of being corrupt and decried the Iranian regime’s growing influence in Iraqi state affairs through the militia groups. The mass uprisings have left more than 450 people dead, the vast majority being protesters—killed by security forces using tear gas and live ammunition.
The Wall Street Journal reported that militia groups hold about 47 parliamentary seats, giving them significant influence in the Iraqi government. According to the WSJ, Iran’s increasing influence over the militia groups and in Iraqi parliament “has stirred public discontent and contributed to nationwide protests” since October.
Trump Ordered Attacks
A senior Iraqi security official told The Associated Press that the airstrike that killed Soleimani took place near a cargo area near Baghdad International Airport after he left his plane and joined al-Muhandis and others in a car. The official added that the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.
AP reported that two officials from the PMF said Suleimani’s body was torn to pieces in the attack and al-Muhandis’s body was not found. A senior politician told the AP that Suleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
Several hours after their deaths, the Department of Defense confirmed that President Donald Trump directed the U.S. military to kill Soleimani.
“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” the department said in a statement late Thursday.
According to the United States, Soleimani was responsible for orchestrating attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the past several months, which included the attack at the Kirkuk military base in northern Iraq on Dec. 27 that killed an American and wounded several American and Iraqi troops.
Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place earlier this week, the department said in their statement. The two-day Iran-backed embassy attack, which began on New Year’s Eve and ended Wednesday, prompted Trump to deploy about 750 U.S. soldiers to the embassy.
Pompeo pointed out in an earlier tweet that al-Muhandis was spotted outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad amid the attacks. Al-Muhandis’s role in the attacks was unclear.
The attack today was orchestrated by terrorists – Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and Qays al-Khazali – and abetted by Iranian proxies – Hadi al Amari and Faleh al-Fayyad. All are pictured below outside our embassy. pic.twitter.com/2QfGGrfmDd
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 31, 2019
Al-Muhandis was also a former leader of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hizbollah (Kata’ib Hezbollah, KH) terror organization that’s part of the PMF. He has a long history of terrorist and subversive activities. In 1983, he led terrorist attacks against the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait, and his men have since been accused of extrajudicial killings in western Iraq.
The United States ordered defensive strikes targeted at KH’s headquarters over the weekend, which prompted the Iran-backed attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The defensive strikes were in response to an attack on the Kirkuk military base on Dec. 27 that the United States believes was carried out by KH. The strikes killed 25 fighters of the KH, the AP reported.
U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“Let me speak directly to Iran and to our partners and allies,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday. “To Iran and its proxy militias: we will not accept continued attacks against our personnel and forces in the region. Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing. We urge the Iranian regime to end their malign activities.
“To our partners and allies: we must stand together against the malign and destabilizing actions of Iran. The 81 nations and member organizations of the Defeat ISIS Coalition are in Iraq and Syria, and cooperating around the globe to defeat ISIS … Unlike the Iranians who continue to meddle in Iraq’s internal affairs and seek to use corruption to further Tehran’s malign influence, the United States and our allies are committed to an independent, stable, secure, and sovereign democratic Iraq that addresses the aspirations and needs of the Iraqi people, who we see protesting for these very things and objecting to Iran’s malign influence.
“We call on our friends and allies to continue to work together to reduce Iran’s destabilizing influence so Iraq is governed by Iraqis without this interference in its internal affairs,” Esper said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.