Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, was killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad, the Pentagon confirmed on Friday. The Iranian state TV network also confirmed Soleimani's death, citing a Revolutionary Guard statement.
The US Department of Defense in a statement said, "At the direction of the president, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani."
"This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans," the Pentagon added.
The strike also reportedly killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraqi paramilitary group Hashd Shaabi.
"The deputy head of the Hashd, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and head of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, were killed in a US strike that targeted their car on the Baghdad International Airport road," said Hashd Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), in a statement early Friday.
The PMF had initially announced that five of its members and two "guests" were killed in an airstrike on their vehicles on the grounds of Baghdad International Airport on Friday.
Among those killed, the PMF also said, was Mohammed Reda al-Jaberi, who was the militia's protocol officer and head of public relations.
Major escalation in regional conflict
As the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds force, Soleimani was one of Iran's most powerful men, and was responsible for regional military policy in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Al-Muhandis was the head of Kaitab Hezbollah, a Shiite militia group that is part of the Iraq state-sanctioned PMF.
Officials from the US and Iran have warned that the fallout could be devastating.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called Friday's attack a "dangerous and foolish escalation."
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said the attack was an "assassination" and condemned it as an act of aggression.
US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, warned that Soleimani's killing could spark a "potential massive regional war."
"One reason we don’t generally [assassinate] foreign political officials is the belief that such action will get more, not less, Americans killed," Murphy said on Twitter. "That should be our real, pressing and grave worry tonight."
A senior Democrat lawmaker said Congress was not informed of the strike prior to its execution, raising "serious legal problems."
Blasts heard, vehicles ablaze
The attack took place near the Baghdad International Airport's air cargo hall, the Iraqi military-run Security Media Cell said in a statement.
The media center also posted images of vehicles on fire, without providing further information. That initial statement was issued after there were loud blasts heard near the airport.
Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday after US air raids on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah militia bases.
Tensions between the US and Iran have surged due to US sanctions on Iran and conflicts over attacks on oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia. Oil prices surged early Friday morning after news broke of the killings in Baghdad.
ls,lc,dr/kl (AP, Reuters, DPA, AFP)