In this Sept. 18, 2016, file photo Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)
The US military has killed General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Donald Trump, the Pentagon says.
An airstrike killed Soleimani, architect of Iran's regional security apparatus, at Baghdad's international airport on Friday, Iranian state television and three Iraqi officials said, an attack that's expected to draw severe Iranian retaliation against Israel and American interests.
The Defense Department said Soleimani "was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region."
It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
A statement released late Thursday by the Pentagon said the strike on Soleimani "was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans."
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or PMF, Iraqi 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.
Citing a Revolutionary Guard statement, Iranian state television said Soleimani was "martyred" in an attack by US helicopters near the airport, without elaborating.
President Trump, vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, sent out a tweet of an American flag.
Their deaths are a potential turning point in the Middle East and if the US carried them out, it represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.
Tehran shot down a US military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers.
Meanwhile, the US blames Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia's oil industry that temporarily halved its production.
The tensions take root in Trump's decision in May 2018 to withdraw the US from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor.
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.
Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with the Kataeb Hezbollah faction, which was involved in the New Year's Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US Embassy in Baghdad.
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.
As the head of the Quds, or Jersualem, Force of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces.
Quds Force members have deployed into Syria's long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.
Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad.
US officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against US troops after the invasion of Iraq.
Iran has denied that. Soleimani himself remains popular among many Iranians, who see him as a selfless hero fighting Iran's enemies abroad.
The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year's Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US Embassy in Baghdad.
© DPA 2020