One of Iran’s most senior and important military figures, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, has been killed in a rocket attack at Baghdad airport, officials have announced, a strike that militia forces blamed on the United States.
In a development that immediately reverberated across the region, officials said that a senior commander of Iraq’s militia forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in a strike on their convoy inside the airport.
“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias.
Soleimani, 62, was a legendary military figure within Iran and beyond, having first made his name as a commander during Iran’s long and bloody with Iraq, during the 1980s, a conflict during which the US sided with the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
He later backed Kurdish and and anti-Isis fighters in both Iraq and Syria. As head of Iran’s Quds Force, he was in charge of overseeing its highly trained special operations forces.
If the attack was carried out by the US, it would immediately escalate tensions, coming just days after an attack by militia members on the US's embassy Baghdad. The New York Times pointed out that on Thursday afternoon, before the attacks were reported, defense secretary Mark Esper, said the US military would pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were signs paramilitary groups were planning more attacks.
“If we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives. The game has changed,” he said.
The attack on Baghdad Airport is said to have killed a total of five people, when it hit two separate vehicles. It was the second attack at the airport within hours, and reports said that Mohammed Ridha Jabri, a spokesperson for the militia forces was also killed.
It was reported that a senior Iraqi Iraqi politician, and a high-level security official, both confirmed that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were among those killed in the attack.
They said that al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.
The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.
Soleimani, who was considered one of the most important individuals involved in spreading Iran's regional influence in recent years, had survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.
The attacks come amid mounting tensions in Iraq, which saw members of the nation’s militia forces surround and attack the US Embassy, which is located in the Green Zone, an area normally restricted.
The militia members were protesting airstrikes launched by US forces on three sites of the Khataib Hezbollah militia near Qaim in Iraq and two sites in Syria. Those airstrikes had in turn come after the US claimed an Iranian backed militia was responsible for firing 31 rockets into a base in Kirkuk province, killing an American contractor and wounding several American and Iraqi troops.
Donald Trump blamed Iran and threatened he would take revenge for the attack on the US Embassy, while Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Washington could not “do a damn thing”.
Additional reporting by agencies
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