One of the most powerful men in Iran was among those killed in an airstrike near Baghdad's international airport early Friday amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran.
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed when rockets destroyed two vehicles traveling near the airport. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces was also killed.
The Pentagon confirmed Soleimani's death, saying the airstrike was ordered by President Donald Trump, in part, to deter "future Iranian attack plans."
"Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region," the Pentagon said.
As the Middle East woke up to the news of Soleimani's death on Friday, the US embassy in Baghdad urged American citizens in Iraq to leave the country immediately.
The airstrike that killed Soleimani came after pro-Iran protesters attacked the embassy in response to other US-led airstrikes in the region.
Trump took a hardline on Iran throughout his campaign and into his presidency. He withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under Barack Obama and imposed new sanctions against the country.
Trump posted a picture of the US flag on his Twitter account after the Pentagon confirmed the strike had taken place.
Later Friday morning, the president tweeted that Soleimani "killed or badly wounded" thousands of Americans and that he was "both hated and feared" in Iran.
"They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!" Trump tweeted.
Soleimani's death will spur fears of strong retaliation from Iran against Israel or American interests in the Middle East.
Senior Iranian officials condemned the attack and vowed retaliation. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the airstrike was a “cowardly act” and “another sign of America’s frustration and helplessness in the region.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said "severe revenge” would follow Soleimani’s death, and Iran's foreign affairs minister, Javad Zarif, called the airstrike "international terrorism" and an "extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation."
Democratic presidential candidates strongly criticized Trump for ordering the airstrike. Elizabeth Warren called it "reckless," Bernie Sanders said it was a "dangerous escalation," and Joe Biden warned the world could be "on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East."
Meanwhile, a UK government source said that Britain was not informed of the US airstrike in advance.
“We have always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qasem Soleimani," UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement. "Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang called for all sides, “especially the United States, to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid further escalating tensions.”
Soleimani is a longtime member of Iran's military, joining the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1979 following the Iranian Revolution. He grew to become one of the country’s most powerful commanders, spearheading an effort to deploy militias around the Middle East to grow Iran’s influence there.
Soleimani was known to show up on the frontlines everywhere from Iraq to Syria, where he led efforts to help prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In Baghdad, he was seen as one of the most visible signals of Iran’s influence on the Iraqi government. The general reportedly acted as kingmaker in 2010, pressuring Iraq’s rival factions to keep former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in his position on behalf of Supreme Leader Khamenei. And during the war to topple ISIS from its territory in Iraq, Soleimani was often in the field directing Iranian militias operating on the ground as the US assaulted the militants from the air.
Miriam Elder and Hayes Brown contributed reporting.