WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Iran’s top security and intelligence commander was killed early Friday in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport that was authorized by President Trump, American officials said.
The commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed along with several officials from Iraqi militias backed by Tehran when an American MQ-9 Reaper drone fired missiles into a convoy that was leaving the airport.
General Suleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict.
The strike was also a serious escalation of Mr. Trump’s growing confrontation with Tehran, one that began with the death of an American contractor in Iraq in late December.
In Iran, the leadership convened an emergency security meeting. And the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a statement calling for three days of public mourning and then retaliation.
“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” the statement said, “but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”
United States officials were braced for potential Iranian retaliatory attacks, possibly including cyberattacks and terrorism, on American interests and allies.
Israel, too, was preparing for Iranian strikes. Some of the country’s most popular tourist sites, including the ski resort at Hermon, were closed, and the armed forces went on alert, officials said.
From the start of the Syrian civil war, General Suleimani was one of the chief leaders of an effort to protect President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — an important Iranian ally — that brought together disparate militias, national security forces and regional powers, including Russia in recent years.
But that was far from the only front he operated on. American officials accuse General Suleimani of causing the deaths of hundreds of soldiers during the Iraq war, when he provided Iraqi insurgents with advanced bomb-making equipment and training. They also say he has masterminded destabilizing Iranian activities that continue throughout the Middle East and are aimed at the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “General Suleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
It did not elaborate on the specific intelligence that led them to carry out General Suleimani’s killing. The highly classified mission was set in motion after the American contractor’s death on Dec. 27 during a rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia, a senior American official said.
In killing General Suleimani, Mr. Trump took an action that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had rejected, fearing it would lead to war between the United States and Iran.
While many Republicans said that the president had been justified in the attack, Mr. Trump’s most significant use of military force to date, critics of his Iran policy called the strike a reckless unilateral escalation that could have drastic and unforeseen consequences that could ripple violently throughout the Middle East.
“Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, wrote on Twitter, using an alternate spelling of the Iranian’s name. “The question is this – as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called the killing of General Suleimani an act of “international terrorism” and warned it was “extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.”
“The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” Mr. Zarif tweeted.
Speaking to reporters while on vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday night, hours after an assault on the American Embassy in Baghdad that United States officials said was orchestrated by Iran, Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly vowed to end American entanglements in the Middle East, insisted that he did not want war.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea for Iran. It wouldn’t last very long,” Mr. Trump said. “Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace.”
After initial reports of the strike emerged on Thursday, Mr. Trump was unusually cryptic, but he appeared to revel in the news when he posted a tweet that consisted only of the image of an American flag.
Within minutes, Twitter accounts associated with Iranian figures were responding in kind, sending images of Iran’s flag — often accompanied by dire threats of revenge.
The strikes followed a warning on Thursday afternoon from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who said the United States military would pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were signs the paramilitary groups were planning more attacks against American bases and personnel in the region.
“If we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” Mr. Esper said. “The game has changed.”
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the Pentagon statement said late Thursday. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
In Iran, state television interrupted its programing to announce General Suleimani’s death, with the news anchor reciting the Islamic prayer for the dead — “From God we came and to God we return” — beside a picture of the general.
Hawkish Iran experts said the strike would be deeply painful for Iran’s leadership. “This is devastating for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the regime and Khamenei’s regional ambitions,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, referring to Ayatollah Khamenei.
“For 23 years, he has been the equivalent of the J.S.O.C. commander, the C.I.A. director and Iran’s real foreign minister,” Mr. Dubowitz said, using an acronym for the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command. “He is irreplaceable and indispensable” to Iran’s military establishment.
For those same reasons, other regional analysts warned, Iran is likely to respond with an intensity of dangerous proportions.
“From Iran’s perspective, it is hard to imagine a more deliberately provocative act,” said Robert Malley, the president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group. “And it is hard to imagine that Iran will not retaliate in a highly aggressive manner.”
“Whether President Trump intended it or not, it is, for all practical purposes, a declaration of war,” added Mr. Malley, who served as White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the gulf region in the Obama administration.
Some United States officials and Trump administration advisers offered a less dire scenario, arguing that the show of force might convince Iran that its acts of aggression against American interests and allies have grown too dangerous, and that a president the Iranians may have come to see as risk-averse is in fact willing to escalate.
One senior administration official said the president’s senior advisers had come to worry that Mr. Trump had sent too many signals — including when he called off a planned missile strike in late June — that he did not want a war with Iran.
Tracking Mr. Suleimani’s location at any given time had long been a priority for the American and Israeli spy services and militaries. Current and former American commanders and intelligence officials said that Thursday night’s attack, specifically, drew upon a combination of highly classified information from informants, electronic intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft and other surveillance.
The strike killed five people, including the pro-Iranian chief of an umbrella group for Iraqi militias, Iraqi television reported and militia officials confirmed. The militia chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was a strongly pro-Iranian figure.
The public relations chief for the umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Mohammed Ridha Jabri, was also killed.
American officials said that multiple missiles hit the convoy in a strike carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command.
American military officials said they were aware of a potentially violent response from Iran and its proxies, and were taking steps they declined to specify to protect American personnel in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.
Two other people were killed in the strike, according to a general at the Baghdad joint command, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
The Iraqi general said that General Suleimani and Mr. Ridha, the militia public relations official, arrived by plane at Baghdad International Airport from Syria.
Two cars stopped at the bottom of the airplane steps and picked them up. Mr. al-Muhandis was in one of the cars. As the cars left the airport, they were struck, the general said.
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.
The strikes come days after American forces bombed three outposts of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported militia in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack last week near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
The United States said that Kataib Hezbollah fired 31 rockets into a base in Kirkuk Province last week, killing an American contractor and wounding several American and Iraqi servicemen.
The Americans responded by bombing three of the militia’s sites near Qaim in western Iraq, and two sites in Syria. Kataib Hezbollah denied involvement in the attack in Kirkuk.
Pro-Iranian militia members then marched on the American Embassy on Tuesday, effectively imprisoning its diplomats inside for more than 24 hours while thousands of militia members thronged outside. They burned the embassy’s reception area, planted militia flags on its roof and scrawled graffiti on its walls.
No injuries or deaths were reported, and the militia members did not enter the embassy building.
They withdrew late Wednesday afternoon.
The Pentagon statement Thursday night said that General Suleimani “had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months,” including the one that killed the American contractor last week.
General Suleimani also “approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad,” the statement said.
Mr. Trump said on Tuesday that Iran would “be held fully responsible” for the attack on the embassy, in which protesters set fire to a reception building on the embassy compound, which covers more than 100 acres. He also blamed Tehran for directing the unrest.
In the past several months, Iranian-supported militias have increased rocket attacks on bases housing American troops. The Pentagon has dispatched more than 14,000 troops to the region since May.
Caught in the middle is the Iraqi government, which is too weak to establish any military authority over some of the more established Iranian-supported Shiite militias.
On Thursday, Mr. Esper said the Iraqi government was not doing enough to contain them. The Iraqis need to “stop these attacks from happening and get the Iranian influence out of the government,” Mr. Esper said.
Representative Andy Kim, Democrat of New Jersey, who served as the National Security Council’s director for Iraq under Mr. Obama, said the strike would most likely elicit “a very serious backlash” from a number of Iraqi leaders for taking the action on Iraqi soil, as well as from Shiite communities “that already were protesting and upset in recent days.”
“This is something that is going to make it very difficult for our diplomatic presence there, our military presence there,” Mr. Kim said in an interview.
General Suleimani, who led the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, a special forces unit responsible for Iranian operations outside Iran’s borders, was long a figure of intense interest.
He was not only in charge of Iranian intelligence gathering and covert military operations, he was regarded as one of Iran’s most cunning and autonomous military figures. He was also believed to be very close to Ayatollah Khamenei, and was seen as a potential future leader of Iran.
The United States and Iran have long been involved in a shadow war in battlegrounds across the Middle East — including in Iraq, Yemen and Syria. The tactics have generally involved using proxies to carry out the fighting, providing a buffer from a direct confrontation between Washington and Tehran that could draw America into yet other ground conflict with no discernible endgame.
The potential for a regional conflagration was a basis of the Obama administration’s push for a 2015 agreement that froze Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Mr. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, saying that Mr. Obama’s agreement had emboldened Iran, giving it economic breathing room to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into a campaign of violence around the region. Mr. Trump responded with a campaign of “maximum pressure” that began with punishing new economic sanctions, which began a new era of brinkmanship and uncertainly, with neither side knowing just how far the other was willing to escalate violence and risk a wider war. In recent days, it has spilled into the military arena.
General Suleimani once described himself to a senior Iraqi intelligence official as the “sole authority for Iranian actions in Iraq,” the official later told American officials in Baghdad.
In a speech denouncing Mr. Trump, General Suleimani was even less discreet — and openly mocking.
“We are near you, where you can’t even imagine,” he said. “We are ready. We are the man of this arena.”
Michael Crowley reported from West Palm Beach, Fla.; Falih Hassan from Baghdad; and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin from Paris; Farnaz Fassihi from New York; Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Helene Cooper, Mark Mazzetti, Catie Edmondson and Edward Wong from Washington; and Tim Arango from Los Angeles.
Orignially published in NYT.