Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed by a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad International Airport early Friday morning local time.
The strikes came after reports that at least three Katyusha rockets were fired on an Iraqi military base housing coalition counter-terrorism forces.
Soleimani’s death was confirmed by Iraqi TV, three Iraqi officials, and Iranian state TV.
“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 of Defense (DoD) said in a statement late Thursday.
The department added that Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
“General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more,” the statement continues.
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.
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the DoD announced. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
Prior to the DoD’s announcement, but several hours after news broke about attacks at Baghdad International Airport, Trump tweeted an image of the American flag, without further comment.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020
Soleimani is considered the architect behind the Iranian regime’s foreign influence activities in the Middle East as head of the 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.
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.
A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore. DNA confirmation is pending.
The United States designated Iran’s IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019, the first time the United States has designated part of a foreign government as a terror group.
“The IRGC 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,” the State Department announced at the time.
The IRGC was responsible for 17 percent of U.S. personnel deaths in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, which is about 603 deaths, the department said.
Officials who confirmed Soleimani’s death said the strikes that killed him also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Iran-backed Shi’ite 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out in an earlier tweet that al-Muhandis was spotted outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad amid the two-day Iran-backed attacks that began on New Year’s Eve and ended Wednesday. 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.
Widespread protests in Iraq have been happening since October and have seen thousands of local Iraqis taking to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shi’ite south. 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 firing tear gas and live ammunition.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the 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.
Following the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Iraqi locals were seen taking to the streets to celebrate, shows a widely-circulated video that was also posted on Twitter by Pompeo.
Melanie Sun and The Associated Press contributed to this report.