- General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and architect of its regional security apparatus was killed on Friday
- The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces
- US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iran Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani - Pentagon
- Oil and gold prices soared on Friday following news of attack
- US citizens asked to leave Iraq 'immediately', US oil field workers evacuating Iraq
Developing story, check back for updates
Baghdad: A US airstrike killed General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and architect of its regional security apparatus, at Baghdad's international airport Friday, Iranian state television and three Iraqi officials said.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, the officials said. The PMF media arm said the two were killed in an American airstrike that targeted their vehicle on the road to the airport.
In the latest update to the situation, the US embassy in Baghdad urged citizens to 'depart Iraq immediately' after the strike. "US citizens should depart via airline while possible, and failing that, to other countries via land," the embassy said in a statement.
The US strike hit outside Baghdad airport early Friday but security sources told AFP it was still open to flights.
US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani "in a decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad," the Pentagon said.
New Quds chief
Iran's supreme leader appointed Esmail Qaani as the new head of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations arm after its commander was killed Friday in a US strike on Baghdad airport.
"Following the martyrdom of the glorious general haj Qasem Soleimani, I name Brigadier General Esmail Qaani as the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement posted on his official website.
"Martyrdom was the reward for his ceaseless efforts in all these years," Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on his Farsi-language Twitter account in reference to Soleimani, also declaring three days of mourning.
"With him gone, God willing, his work and his path will not be stopped, but severe revenge awaits the criminals who bloodied their foul hands with his blood and other martyrs' in last night's incident."
Iran and the "free nations of the region" will take revenge on the United States for killing Soleimani, President Hasan Rouhani said Friday.
"There is no doubt that the great nation of Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America," Rouhani said in a statement posted on the Iranian government website.
A commander in Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi military force called its fighters to be on alert Friday following a US strike that killed its deputy head and top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.
"All resistance fighters must be ready, as an upcoming conquest and a great victory await us," said Qais al-Khazali, the head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, in a handwritten note seen by AFP.
"General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more," the Department of Defense said.
Following Soleimani's death, Trump tweeted an image of the US flag without any further explanation.
Shortly after the news of the killing came out US President Donald Trump posted an image of US flag on twitter. There were no words to accompany it but the message was clear.
Later, he posted an indirect call on his favourite social media platform for Iran to come to the negotiation table.
"Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation," he wrote.
'Soleimani should have been taken out many years ago'
Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has killed many Americans and should have been killed years ago, Trump said.
“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more...but got caught!,” he tweeted.
“He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of protesters killed in Iran itself,” the us president said.
“While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!,” he added.
Reactions in the US
US lawmakers were not told in advance of the attack, a senior House Democrat said late Thursday.
The strike "went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress," House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel said in a statement.
Soleimani was "the mastermind of immense violence" who has "the blood of Americans on his hands," the Democratic lawmaker said.
But "to push ahead with an action of this gravity without involving Congress raises serious legal problems and is an affront to Congress's powers as a coequal branch of government," Engel added.
The killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in an American air strike risks provoking a "dangerous escalation of violence", US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday.
"America - and the world - cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return," she added in a statement.
Tehran on Friday summoned an official from the Swiss embassy, which represents US interests in Iran, to condemn the killing of one of its top commanders, Qasem Soleimani, by American forces.
"Following the assassination of General Soleimani by US forces, the Swiss charge d'affaires was summoned and Iran's serious condemnation was conveyed to him," Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi tweeted.
"He was told that this is a clear instance of America's state terrorism and America's regime will be fully responsible for its consequences," he added.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a video on Twitter Thursday he said showed Iraqis "dancing in the street" over the killing of the top Iranian commander.
The strikes killed five
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 shortly after midnight. The militia chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was a strongly pro-Iranian figure.
The security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Al Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy along with others to receive Soleimani, whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike took place near the cargo area after he left the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and others.
The attack appears to have been an airstrike that hit two vehicles, the officer said.
According to a general with the Iraqi Joint Command, Soleimani and Ridha, the militia public relations official, arrived by plane at Baghdad International Airport from Syria - the New York Times reported on Friday.
Two cars stopped at the bottom of the airplane steps and picked them up. Al-Muhandis was in one of the cars.
As the two cars left the airport, they were bombed, the general said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The strike was the second attack at the airport within hours.
An earlier attack, late Thursday, involved three rockets that did not appear to have caused any injuries.
Oil prices soared more than four percent Friday following the news of his killing.
US citizens asked to leave Iraq 'immediately'
The State Department on Friday told US citizens to leave Iraq "immediately," after an American strike killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.
"Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, we urge US citizens to depart Iraq immediately," the State Department tweeted.
"Due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the US Embassy compound, all consular operations are suspended. US citizens should not approach the Embassy."
US oil field workers evacuating Iraq
American nationals working at Iraqi oil fields were evacuating the country on Friday after a US strike killed top Iranian and Iraqi commanders in Baghdad, an oil ministry spokesman said.
Several had already left on Friday morning and others were preparing to fly out, Assem Jihad told AFP, adding that there was "no impact" on Iraq's oil production.
The number of American staff at fields in OPEC's second-biggest crude producer had already dwindled in recent months as tensions between the US and Iran soared.
Who was Qasem Soleimani?
Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed Friday in a US strike, was one of the most popular figures in Iran and seen as a deadly adversary by America and its allies.
General Soleimani, who headed the external operations Quds Force for the Guards, had wielded his regional clout publicly since 2018 when it was revealed that he had direct involvement in top-level talks over the formation of Iraq's government.
It was no surprise at the time for a man who has been at the centre of power-broking in the region for two decades.
Soleimani has been in and out of Baghdad ever since, most recently last month as parties sought to form a new government.
A rocket attack in northern Iraq killed an American contractor and wounded several military personnel on December 27.
The official described the attack as the biggest in the series of rocket strikes launched against US interests in the country since late October, killing one Iraqi soldier and leaving others wounded, as well as causing material damage in the vicinity of the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
In retaliation, on December 29, US-led air strikes were directed at several bases belonging to the Hezbollah Brigades, one of the most radical factions of Hashed al-Shaabi, a Tehran-backed Iraqi paramilitary coalition.
The strikes "killed 25 and wounded 51," according to the Hashed, which holds major sway in Iraq.
Following this, dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area. US forces are said to have fired tear gas to disperse the crowd that breached the outer wall of the compound, which is in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
US president Donald Trump responded to the embassy storming on Twitter. He said on Twitter: "We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!
Where once he kept to the shadows, Soleimani has in recent years become an unlikely celebrity in Iran - replete with a huge following on Instagram.
His profile rose suddenly when he was pushed forward as the public face of Iran's intervention in the Syrian conflict from 2013, appearing in battlefield photos, documentaries - and even being featured in a music video and animated film.
In a rare interview aired on Iranian state television in October, he said he was in Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to oversee the conflict.
To his fans and enemies alike, Soleimani was the key architect of Iran's regional influence, leading the fight against jihadist forces and extending Iran's diplomatic heft in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
"To Middle Eastern Shiites, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga rolled into one," wrote former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack in a profile for Time's 100 most influential people in 2017.
A survey published in 2018 by IranPoll and the University of Maryland - one of the few considered reliable by analysts - found Soleimani had a popularity rating of 83 percent, beating President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
Part of his appeal was the suggestion he might bridge Iran's bitter social divides on issues such as its strict "hijab" clothing rules.
"If we constantly use terms such as 'bad hijab' and 'good hijab', reformist or conservative... then who is left?" Soleimani said in a speech to mark World Mosque Day in 2017.
"They are all people. Are all your children religious? Is everybody the same? No, but the father attracts all of them."
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is Iran’s elite military force whose primary function is not to defend Iran against foreign aggression but to protect the regime from internal and external threats.
A 125,000-man force, the IRGC was established at the end of Iran’s 1979 revolution as an elite armed militia whose role was sustain and protect the shaky clerical government that took over after the fall of the Shah’s regime. The new rulers saw many of the generals of the traditional Iranian military – known as the Atresh – as still being loyal to the exiled Shah.
The Quds Force
The Quds Force is the foreign operations unit of the IRGC, and is led by Brigadier General Qassem Sulaimani, who has emerged as one of the most powerful figures inside Iran. It was established during the Iran–Iraq War (1980-1988). To this day, its biggest undertaking is helping establish Hezbollah as a formidable fighting force in Lebanon, following the 1982 invasion by the Israeli regime. The force has been Iran’s primary military actor in neighbouring states, particularly Syria, where it helped prop up the regime of Bashar Al Assad, and Iraq, where it supports a coalition of powerful Shiite militias collectively known as Hashd Al Shaabi. It also backs Al Houthis in Yemen.
In 2007, the US Treasury designated the Quds Force as a terror organisation.
- Omar Shariff, Deputy Middle East Editor
- With inputs from Sara Al Shurafa, Web News Editor and AP, AFP, Reuters