The American drone attack near the Baghdad airport early Friday that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the powerful Iranian commander, dramatically ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran, threatening to tip hostilities into war.
Here’s what to know about what just happened and what comes next.
Who was Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani?
General Suleimani was Iran’s most powerful security and intelligence commander. He was the longtime leader of its Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, the foreign-facing branch of the country’s powerful security apparatus.
He worked closely with Iraqi and Lebanese allies, nurturing proxy forces to form a Shiite axis of power throughout the region. His profile rose amid the fight to prop up President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and later the fight against the Islamic State.
He had long been designated as a terrorist by the United States and Israel, but many in Iran lauded him as a hero.
Other officials were also killed.
The drone strike also killed several officials from Iraqi militias backed by Iran. Among them was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of Iraqi militias, and the group’s public relations chief, Mohammed Ridha Jabri. Mr. al-Muhandis was a lifelong ally of Iran, and he rose to prominence fighting the Islamic State.
Why did the United States kill General Suleimani?
In a statement after the strike, the Pentagon accused General Suleimani of planning attacks on American diplomats and service members in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, including a Dec. 27 attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor.
The statement also accused General Suleimani of approving an attack on the United States Embassy in Baghdad this week. Pro-Iranian militia members chanting “Death to America” broke into the compound on Tuesday, setting fires and effectively imprisoning American diplomats inside for more than 24 hours.
American officials have previously blamed General Suleimani for killing hundreds of Americans in the Iraq war by providing Iraqi insurgents with bomb-making equipment and training. They say he was the architect of destabilizing Iranian activities throughout the region aimed at the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Here’s what President Trump has said.
A few hours after the drone strike, late Thursday night on the East Coast, the president tweeted an image of the U.S. flag and pinned it to the top of his Twitter feed. By Friday morning, he was tweeting more directly about the general’s death, saying, “He should have been taken out many years ago!”
The U.S. political reaction has been mixed.
While many Republicans said that the president had been justified in the attack, his critics called the strike a reckless escalation.
“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?” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote on Twitter.
Iran’s supreme leader called for retaliation.
Iran watchers sounded the alarm that General Suleimani’s death would unleash mayhem that would be difficult for the United States to contain.
“This one life lost will likely cost many more Iranian, Iraqi, American and others,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program for the International Crisis Group. “It is not just Suleimani’s death, but likely the death knell of the Iran nuclear deal and any prospect of diplomacy between Iran and the U.S.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for retaliation.
“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands,” he said in a statement.