By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed early on Friday in an air strike on their convoy at Baghdad airport, an Iraqi militia spokesman told Reuters.
“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias.
Strikes had been carried out against two targets linked to Iran in Baghdad on Thursday, U.S. officials told Reuters. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to give any further details.
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.
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.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein and Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Peter Cooney)