Trump says US not seeking regime change in Iran but warns against retaliation for Soleimani killing

Iran warns of 'harsh revenge' as US dispatches 3,500 troops to region

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 03 January 2020 16:25 GMT
Qassem Soleimani: Trump claims 'last night we took action to stop a war, not to start a war'

Donald Trump has insisted the US killed Qassem Soleimani ”to stop a war” not start one, but also warned Iran against retaliating over the targetted killing of its military leader.

In in his first public comments since the Quds Force leader was killed at Baghdad airport alongside an Iraqi militia leader, in a airstrike carried out by a Reaper drone, the president claimed he was not trying to exacerbate an already tense situation.

“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” Mr Trump said in remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”

But he added: “He should have been taken out many years ago.”

The president’s brief appearance – he pointedly did not take questions from reporters – is unlikely to soothe the concerns of those who fear a rapid and potentially devastating escalation of hostilities.

Mr Trump has already dispatched a further 3,500 troops to the Middle East, and US civilians have been warned to return to return from Iraq.

As Iran threatened “harsh revenge”, the US state department was scrambling to bolster the safety and security of its diplomats overseas.

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Soleimani, a 62-year-old general who headed the overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The overnight attack, authorised by the president was a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and American allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the strike aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East. Democratic critics called the Republican president reckless and said he had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.

Mr Pompeo has declined to give details of the threat, but claimed in interviews with US broadcasters it was “an intelligence based assessment” that drove the decision to target Soleimani.

Later on Friday, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said the operation against Suleimani was “designed to prevent further bloodshed”. He said had just arrived from Damascus and was planning attacks on American service members and diplomats.

Asked for details of the planned attacks and what evidence the US had, Mr O’Brien, who said he was with the president when Suleimani was killed, said the information was “extraordinarily sensitive. He said the Iranian military leader “terrorist” who had operated in the region for 20 years. He declined to provide any further information.

Mr Trump claimed the US was not seeking “regime change” in Iran but also stated that Iran’s use of proxy fighters in the Middle East must end.

In reality, the US has been stepping up its campaign of “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran since Mr Trump in May 2018 withdrew Washington from the multi-party Iran nuclear deal.

Most pertinently that campaign has involved crippling sanctions that have had a major impact on Iran’s economy, along with an advertising and social media campaign intended to undermine confidence in Iran’s leaders.

Additional reporting by agencies

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