Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, was killed in an airstrike at Baghdad International Airport, Iraqi TV and three Iraqi officials officials said Friday.
The officials said the strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The PMF, also known as Hashed, confirmed that the two were killed, blaming the strike on the US.
US officials told Reuters that it had carried out a strike in Baghdad on two figures linked to Iran, but did not provide details. The attack came hours after Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the US was ready to step up activities to push Iran-backed forces out of Iraq, including pre-emptive strikes.
Soleimani’s death will likely mark a major escalation in a simmering conflict between the US and Iran that recently boiled over in Iraq with the storming of the US embassy by pro-Iranian militiamen following a US strike on a Tehran-backed militia.
A senior Iraqi politician and a high-level security official confirmed to the Associated Press that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were among those killed in the attack. Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with the Kataeb Hezbollah, which was involved in the attack on the US Embassy this week.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 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.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because they were not authorized to give official statements.
The senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
Soleimani has for years been seen as the architect of much of Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East, including attempts to place a foothold in Syria and rocket attacks on Israel, making him one of Israel and the US’s most sought-after targets.
The IRGC confirmed that Soleimani was killed, according to the Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, but there was no other immediate reaction to his death from Tehran.
There was also no immediate comment on the assassination from Israeli officials, who in the past have expressed worries of being targeted by Iran in any conflict with the US.
US President Donald Trump, who months ago excitedly tweeted out about “Big news,” to tease the US’s assassination Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, did not immediately issue a statement, but tweeted a large picture of an American flag.
Soleimani’s killing was announced hours after missiles struck at least two cars at Baghdad’s International Airport, killing at least seven people, according to Iraqi officials.
The PMF official said the dead included Muhandis and its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.
Despite being deputy head of the PMF, Muhandis was widely viewed as the group’s leader. He and Soleimani shared a close relationship.
Soleimani for years stayed in the shadows while directing the Quds force, an elite special forces brigade within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for Iran’s extra-territorial military operations.
In a 2013 profile of Soleimani, New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins wrote that as head of the Quds Force, which he took control of in 1998, Soleimani “sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.”
In recent years he stepped into the light, appearing alongside Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Shiite leaders.
In October, he gave his first major interview to a publication run out of Khamenei’s office in which he claimed that Israel had tried to assassinate him and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in 2006.
Days later, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen indicated that Israel was not yet actively seeking to assassinate Soleimani, after Iran said it had uncovered an “Israeli-Arab” plot to kill him.
“He knows very well that his assassination is not impossible. His actions are identified and felt everywhere… there’s no doubt the infrastructure he built presents a serious challenge for Israel,” Cohen said.
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.
Earlier Friday, an official with an Iran-backed paramilitary force said that seven people were killed by a missile fired at Baghdad International Airport, blaming the United States.
A security official confirmed that seven people were killed in the attack on the airport, describing it as an airstrike. Earlier, Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which releases information regarding Iraqi security, said Katyusha rockets landed near the airport’s cargo hall, killing several people and setting two cars on fire.
On Tuesday, Trump threatened Iran with strong action over the embassy clashes.
“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” he said on Twitter.
“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” wrote Trump, adding “Happy New Year!” Khamenei dismissed the threats over the embassy violence saying Washington “can’t do anything.”
Tensions between the US and Iran have soared since the Donald Trump administration announced in May 2018 that it was pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Last year, the tensions spilled over into a war of words between American and Iranian leaderships, allegations of sabotage attacks targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline claimed by Yemen’s Iranian-allied rebels, and the dispatch of US warships and bombers to the region.
In spring 2019, Soleimani reportedly met with Iraqi militia members and told them to prepare for a proxy war, according to The Guardian, sparking fears in the US of renewed attacks on troops.
Iraqi officials have feared that their country could be used as an arena for score-settling between Iran an the US.
The United States led the 2003 invasion against then-dictator Saddam Hussein and has worked closely with Iraqi officials since.
But its influence has waned compared with that of Tehran, which has carefully crafted personal ties with Iraqi politicians and armed factions, even during Saddam’s reign.