The United States struck a significant and potentially risky blow against Iran, killing the leader of the nation's elite Quds Force in an airstrike in Iraq.
The Pentagon confirmed the death of Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani in a statement late Thursday, saying the strike was launched, "at the direction" of U.S. President Donald Trump.
It further described the strike as a "decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad."
"General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region," the statement said.
"This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans," it said. "The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world."
The Defense Department statement shared few details of the strike itself, but Iraqi officials said a rocket struck a convoy traveling near Baghdad International Airport late Thursday.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, also died in the strike, Iraqi officials said, adding other top officials may have been killed, as well.
Even before the U.S. Defense Department confirmed the strike on Soleimani, photos claiming to show the Iranian general’s lifeless body were circulating on social media.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN on Friday that the strike killing the Quds Force commander thwarted an attack on Americans.
"He was actively plotting in the region to take actions — a big action, as he described it — that would have put dozens, if not hundreds, of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent," Pompeo said.
Earlier in the day, the State Department said the secretary of state phoned British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to discuss the "defensive action to eliminate" Soleimani, and thanked them for their "recent statements" recognizing the continuing aggressive threat from Iran and its Quds force.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, as well as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, also quickly confirmed the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, blaming the United States.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the U.S. strike an "act of terrorism," tweeting it was an "extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation."
Iran Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for three days of national mourning and warned, "All Enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with a doubled motivation, and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war."
Just days earlier, Trump warned Iran he was holding its leaders accountable for a series of repeated attacks by members of Iranian-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"They will pay a very big price. This is not a warning. It is a threat," he tweeted. But he told reporters Tuesday that he did not foresee the U.S. going to war with Iran.
"I don’t think Iran would want that to happen. It would go very quickly," he said.
The U.S. has already deployed 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait to help bolster the defense of U.S. bases and personnel in the region. Defense officials said Thursday more troops would be sent as needed.
Among analysts and onlookers, though, there is a sense that whatever happens next, the paradigm between the United States and Iran has changed.
"The strike was a clear signal from the U.S. that the parameters of our confrontation with Iran have shifted fundamentally," said Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, in a message to VOA Persian. "Quite simply, the U.S. has demonstrated that it is no longer prepared to exercise restraint in the face of repeated Iranian provocation, the way it has in the past."
"There is significant risk here," Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told VOA, calling the strike that killed Soleimani, "the most significant" since the U.S. killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden.
"Soleimani and Muhandis were revered by the Iraqi Shia militias. They will want blood," he said. "It is unclear if the Iraqi security forces are able or even willing to do anything to prevent it."
Troops in the region
The United States has about 5,000 troops in Iraq and about 55,000 more across the Middle East, all of whom could potentially be targeted by Iran.
"The key question is whether this will ultimately lead to sustained military confrontation — even war — between the U.S. and Iran and Iran and Israel," former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator, Aaron David Miller, tweeted. "Matters will get worse before they get worse."
U.S. officials have repeatedly voiced concern about Iran’s military reach, warning Tehran’s forces are capable of targeting personnel and assets throughout the Middle East.
Some of that concern has focused on Iran’s ballistic missile technology and on Iran’s naval prowess. This past July, Iran also disrupted naval traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, seizing several oil tankers.
But there is also concern that Iran’s proxy forces, like the militias it supports in Iraq and Syria, are capable of inflicting considerable damage.
"When you’re dealing with groups like this, they are a hell of a lot more threatening and a hell of a lot more organized than anything we’ve seen out of many Sunni jihadist groups," said Phillip Smyth, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"It doesn’t operate the same way you might think of, let’s say, the Islamic State," he said. "You’re dealing with a far more organized apparatus."
Despite the risk, some key Republican lawmakers praised the U.S. strike against Soleimani.
"President Trump has been clear all along — the United States will not tolerate Iran spilling American blood, and tonight he followed his words with action," Republican James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement late Thursday.
"The President made the brave and right call, and Americans should be proud," Republican Senator Benn Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. "General Soleimani is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans."
Former U.S. Vice President and current presidential candidate for the Democratic Party Joseph Biden was more cautious. While admitting Soleimani "deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents throughout the region," Biden in a written statement said President Trump owes the American people an explanation of the strategy and plan to keep American servicemen and diplomats and allies safe at home and abroad.
"I hope the administration has thought through the second- and third-order consequences of the path they have chosen. But I fear this administration has not demonstrated at any turn the discipline or long-term vision necessary — and the stakes could not be higher," he said.
Although Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] and Quds Force are part of the Iranian military, the U.S. State Department designated them as Foreign Terrorist Organizations this past April because of their ties with Middle Eastern terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
The U.S. also blames the IRGC and Quds Force for the death of more than 600 U.S. service members in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
Earlier Thursday, top U.S. defense officials said Iran’s targeting of Americans had resumed.
"There’s been a sustained campaign at least since October," General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
"We know the intent of this last attack [on a base in Kirkuk, Iraq] was, in fact, to kill American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines," he added. "Thirty-one rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot."
Speaking alongside Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned the United States was also ready to take "preemptive action" against Iran.
"The game has changed. We’re prepared to do what is necessary," he said.
VOA Persian Service and White House Senior Correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this report.