Baghdad: Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, was killed early on Friday in a US air strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport, the Pentagon said.
Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack, a militia spokesman said.
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed in a statement that Soleimani was killed.
Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias, blamed the United States and Israel.
“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” he said.
Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted that US’s actions were “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation”.
The US' act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.
The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 3, 2020
Strikes had been carried out against two targets linked to Iran in Baghdad on Thursday, US officials earlier told Reuters.
Iraqi paramilitary groups said on Friday that three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests”.
The rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, burning two vehicles, killing and injuring several people.
Local militia commander Abu Muntathar al-Hussaini told Reuters:
“Haj Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were riding in one vehicle when it was struck by two successive guided missiles launched from an American helicopter while they were on their way from the arrivals hall on the road that leads out of Baghdad Airport.”
He said the second vehicle was carrying bodyguards from the PMF and was hit by one rocket.
“The American criminals had detailed information on the convoy’s movements.”
Oil prices were up $2 on the news.
The high-profile assassinations are seen as a massive blow to Iran, which has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with the storming of the US embassy perimeter in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following an American air raid on an Iraqi Shi’ite militia.
Soleimani, who has led the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards and has had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquired celebrity status at home and abroad.
He was instrumental in the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.
He survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.
Soleimani’s Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.
Soleimani became head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.