Donald Trump rattles Middle East, US politics with risky Iran strike

A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen Qassem Soleimani, prior to the Friday prayers in Tehran on Friday Photo: AP/PTI
United States (US) President Donald Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian general on Thursday, and in his characteristic style, the president made sure the world knew who was responsible.

As reports filtered out from Iraq that Qassem Soleimani had been killed in a US airstrike, some administration officials quietly acknowledged American involvement.

Then, a tweet from the president: an image of the American flag, absent any commentary. And finally, a statement from the Defense Department: Trump ordered a strike on Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds force, to prevent attacks on US personnel.

Trump’s decision to kill a man regarded as the second most powerful person in Iran was hailed by his allies as one of his boldest strokes in foreign policy and lambasted by his critics as likely his most reckless.

Trump defended the move Friday morning in a series of tweets saying Soleimani was planning to attack Americans.

That the attack came two days into Trump’s re-election year, and while he faces an impeachment trial in the Senate, raised immediate suspicion among his opponents that his decision was politically motivated. And the repercussions, extending to the possibility of war, are unknown.

As a private citizen in 2011, Trump publicly accused then president Barack Obama of planning war against Iran in order to secure his re-election because “he’s weak and he’s ineffective.”

But as president, Trump has shown - first by his withdrawal of US forces from Syria in September and now with the strike on Soleimani - that he will act in what he believes are the best interests of the country even in the face of potential consequences he and his advisers can in no way confidently predict.

Bracing for retaliation

In Syria, there was little planning for the aftermath. The White House was braced for potential Iranian retaliation within US borders, two officials said. One said that the government was on heightened alert, but the details of the administration’s preparations weren’t immediately clear.

Soleimani planned to attack Americans: Pentagon

The Pentagon said Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack Americans in Iraq and the Middle East. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” it said, adding that the United States would continue to take necessary action to protect Americans and interests around the world.

The Pentagon said that Soleimani had “orchestrated” attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the past few months and approved the “attacks” on the US embassy in Baghdad this week.

Pompeo calls forde-escalation

The US State Department issued a directive to American citizens to depart Iraq immediately because of the heightened tensions in the region as Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called for de-escalation with Iran.

Pompeo said in a round of interviews that the US urged Iran to “de-escalate” but is prepared for a response. “We don’t seek war with Iran,” Pompeo told CNN Friday morning. “But we, at the same time, are not going to stand by and watch the Iranians escalate and continue to put American lives at risk without responding in a way that disrupts, defends, deters and creates an opportunity to de-escalate the situation.”

Breach of US troop mandate: Iraq

Iraq’s military condemned on Friday the killing of militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by US forces in an air strike on Baghdad airport and said it was a clear breach of their mandate in Iraq.

“The Joint Operations Command mourns the hero martyr ... who was martyred last night in a cowardly and treacherous attack carried out by American aircraft near Baghdad international airport,” it said in a statement.

“We affirm that what happened is a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a clear breach by the American forces of their mandate which is exclusively to fight Islamic State and provide advice and assistance to Iraqi security forces.” 

Dozens of workers leaving Iraq

Dozens of US citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra were leaving the country on Friday, the Oil Ministry said.

Iraqi officials said the evacuation would not affect operations, production or exports.

Company sources told Reuters earlier the workers were expected to fly out of the country.

Oil production in Iraq, the second-biggest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, was about 4.62 million barrels per day (bpd), according to a Reuters survey of OPEC output.

Right to self-defence: Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that the US had the right to defend itself by killing Soleimani.

“Just as Israel has the right of self-defence, the United States has exactly the same right,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued by his office. “Soleimani is responsible for the death of American citizens and many other innocent people. He was planning more such attacks.” Netanyahu spoke on the airport tarmac in Greece after cutting short a trip abroad to fly back to Israel.

France, Netherlands issue warnings to citizens 

France urged its citizens in Iran on Friday to stay away from public gatherings and the Netherlands told Dutch nationals to leave Baghdad.

“Three days of mourning have been declared after the death of General Soleimani. In this context, we recommend French citizens to stay away from any gatherings and to behave with prudence and discretion and abstain from taking pictures in public spaces,” France’s embassy in Tehran said on Twitter.

Esmail Ghaani to succeed Soleimani

Iran’s supreme leader appointed the deputy commander of the Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani (pictured), as the replacement for Soleimani, state media reported.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement that programme of the Quds Force, the military unit responsible for projecting Iran’s influence via proxies across the Middle East, “will be unchanged from the time of his predecessor.” Ghaani became deputy commander of the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran”s Revolutionary Guards, in 1997 when Soleimani became the Force’s chief commander.

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