Successor to slain Iran general faces same fate if he kills Americans – U.S. envoy

By Nafisa Eltahir

DUBAI (Reuters) – The successor to the Iranian commander killed in a U.S. drone strike would suffer the same fate if he followed a similar path by killing Americans, the U.S. special representative for Iran said, according to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Washington blamed Qassem Soleimani for masterminding attacks by Iran-aligned militias against U.S. forces in the region. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike in Iraq after an escalation that began in December with missile strikes that killed an American contractor, which Washington blamed on an Iran-aligned militia in Iraq.

Iran responded to the killing of Soleimani by launching missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8, although no U.S. soldiers were killed.

After Soleimani’s death, Tehran swiftly appointed Esmail Ghaani as the new head of the Quds Force, an elite unit in the Revolutionary Guards that handles actions abroad. Ghaani has pledged to pursue Soleimani’s course.

“If (Esmail) Ghaani follows the same path of killing Americans then he will meet the same fate,” U.S. envoy Brian Hook told the Arabic-language daily Asharq al-Awsat.

He said in the interview in Davos that Trump had long made it clear “that any attack on Americans or American interests would be met with a decisive response.”

“This isn’t a new threat. The president has always said that he will always respond decisively to protect American interests,” Hook said. “I think the Iranian regime understands now that they cannot attack America and get away with it.”

After his appointment, Ghaani said he would “continue in this luminous path” taken by Soleimani and said the goal was to drive U.S. forces out of the region, Iran’s long stated policy.

The Revolutionary Guards aerospace commander said four U.S. military bases in the region were used to deploy aircraft and drones that played a role in the Jan. 3 attack that killed Soleimani, including two bases in Iraq and another in Kuwait.

“Most of the drones” had taken off from Kuwait, Amirali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guards’ aerospace unit, told state television, although he did not say if a drone from Kuwait was ultimately responsible for attack on Soleimani.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have steadily increased since Trump withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and imposed tough news sanctions that have hammered the Iranian economy.

This month’s military flare-up began in December when rockets fired at U.S. bases in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and launched air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the drone strike on Soleimani.

(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir and Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Michael Perry and Peter Graff)

Netanyahu says anyone attacking Israel will be dealt ‘strongest blow’

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, after an Iranian missile strike on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, that Israel would hit back hard against anyone who attacked his country.

Netanyahu reiterated his praise for U.S. President Donald Trump for the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani last week, calling it a bold move.

The Israeli leader said Soleimani had tried to destabilize the region for decades and was “planning much worse.”

Without directly referencing Iran’s missile strikes overnight, in what Tehran called retaliation for the general’s death in Baghdad, Netanyahu said in a speech in Jerusalem that Israel stood beside the United States.

“Whoever tries to attack us will be dealt the strongest blow,” Netanyahu said, accusing Iran of leading a campaign to “strangle and destroy” Israel.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Jeffrey Heller and Ari Rabinovitch)

Trump vows to hit 52 Iranian targets if Iran retaliates after drone strike

By Ahmed Aboulenein, Maha El Dahan and David Shepardson

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, as tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn their deaths.

Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport on Friday, Trump issued a threat to Iran on Twitter. The strike has raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East.

Iran, Trump wrote, “is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets” in revenge for Soleimani’s death. Trump said the United States has “targeted 52 Iranian sites” and that some were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

“The USA wants no more threats!” Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 – an enduring sore spot in U.S.-Iranian relations.

Trump did not identify the sites. The Pentagon referred questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the mourners in Iraq included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armored personnel carriers in the procession. Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.

On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighborhood and two more were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, Iraq’s military said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Trump referenced an unusually specific number of potential Iranian targets after a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander had also mentioned a specific number of American targets – 35 of them – for possible retaliatory attacks in response to Soleimani’s killing.

General Gholamali Abuhamzeh was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying late on Friday that Iran will punish Americans wherever they are within reach of the Islamic Republic, and raised the prospect of attacks on ships in the Gulf.

“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there. … Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago. … Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he was quoted as saying.

Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq, “by a distance not less than a thousand meters (six-tenths of a mile) starting Sunday evening,” reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Trump said on Friday Soleimani had been plotting “imminent and sinister” attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. Democratic critics said the Republican president’s action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.

‘MALIGN INFLUENCE’

Trump’s provocative Twitter posts came only hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he had told Iraq’s president that “the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.” Pompeo also wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran and “underscored the importance of countering Iran’s malign influence and threats to the region.”

The White House on Saturday sent to the U.S. Congress formal notification of the drone strike – as required by law – amid complaints from Democrats that Trump did not notify lawmakers or seek advance approval for the attack. White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien defended the operation’s legality and said Justice Department lawyers had signed off on the plan.

Democrats sounded unswayed. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the notification document raised “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification” of the strike.

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a strident Trump critic, wrote on Twitter that his threat to hit Iranian sites “is a war crime.”

“Threatening to target and kill innocent families, women and children – which is what you’re doing by targeting cultural sites – does not make you a ‘tough guy.’ It does not make you ‘strategic.’ It makes you a monster,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

With security worries rising after Friday’s strike, the NATO alliance and a separate U.S.-led mission suspended their programs to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.

Soleimani, 62, was Iran’s pre-eminent military leader – head of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s spreading influence in the Middle East. Muhandis was de facto leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.

The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.

The United States has been an ally of the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but Iraq has become more closely allied with Iran.

The Iraqi parliament is convening an extraordinary session during which a vote to expel U.S. troops could be taken as soon as Sunday. Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, have expressed anger at Washington for killing the two men on Iraqi soil and possibly dragging their country into another conflict.

BODIES TAKEN TO HOLY CITIES

A PMF-organized procession carried the bodies of Soleimani and Muhandis, and those of others killed in the U.S. strike, through Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The top candidate to succeed Muhandis, Hadi al-Amiri, spoke over the dead militia commander’s coffin: “The price for your noble blood is American forces leaving Iraq forever and achieving total national sovereignty.”

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also attended. Mahdi’s office later said he received a phone call from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and they “discussed the difficult conditions facing Iraq and the region.”

Mourners brought the bodies of the two slain men by car to the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, then to Najaf, another sacred Shi’ite city, where they were met by the son of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.

Soleimani’s body will be transferred to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday it will be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.

The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on Kataib Hezbollah, founded by Muhandis. Washington accused the group of an attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Maha El Dahan in Baghdad and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Ghazwan Jabouri in Tikrit, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Nadine Awadallah in Beirut, John Chalmers in Brussels, and Kate Holton in London; Writing by Will Dunham, Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)

U.S. says it disrupted ‘imminent attack’ with killing of Iran commander

 

By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran promised harsh revenge on Friday after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.

Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

FILE PHOTO: Combination photo of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces. REUTERS/Stringer/Thaier al-Sudani

The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, was a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strike aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East. Democratic critics said the Republican president had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.

Pompeo, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, declined to discuss many details of the alleged threat but said it was “an intelligence based assessment” that drove the decision to target Soleimani.

In a tweet, Trump said Soleimani had “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more”, but did not elaborate.

The attack also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani.

It followed a sharp increase in longrunning U.S.-Iranian hostilities last week when pro-Iranian militiamen attacked the U.S. embassy in Iraq following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

Iraq’s prime minister said that with Friday’s attack Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country.

CONCERN OVER ESCALATION

Israel put its army on high alert and U.S. allies in Europe including Britain, France and Germany voiced concerns about an escalation in tensions.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he died in an attack by U.S. helicopters.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.

Dozens of U.S. citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern city of Basra were leaving the country. Iraqi officials said the evacuations would not affect output and exports were unaffected.

Oil prices jumped more than $3 a barrel over concern about disruption to Middle East supplies.

Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani and said his death would double resistance against the United States and Israel.

In statements on state media, he called for three days of national mourning and appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to replace him as Quds Force head.

‘STICK OF DYNAMITE’

Trump critics called the operation reckless.

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, a contender in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

As leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Guards, Soleimani had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Over two decades he was at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad.

President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make Iran more decisive in resisting the United States, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-U.S. forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.

Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Khamenei’s compound in central Tehran to convey their condolences.

“I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani. He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.

In Soleimani’s hometown, Kerman, people wearing black gathered in front of his father’s house, crying as they listened to a recitation of verses from the Koran.

“Heroes never die. It cannot be true. Qassem Soleimani will always be alive,” said Mohammad Reza Seraj, a teacher.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war.

Israel has long seen Soleimani as a major threat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the U.S. action. Israeli Army Radio said the military was on heightened alert.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense called the killing a “short-sighted” step that would lead to escalations in the region.

PREVIOUS ATTACKS

The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias – battle-hardened militias armed with missiles – has ample means to respond.

In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil plants of Saudi energy giant Saudi Aramco. Washington also blamed Tehran for earlier raids on Gulf shipping.

Iran has denied responsibility for the strikes and accused Washington of warmongering by reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s main export, oil, in order to force Tehran to renegotiate a deal to freeze its nuclear activities.

Soleimani had survived several assassination attempts by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

The Quds Force, tasked with operating beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militias defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, after which he quietly strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Mary Milliken in Washington, Parisa Hafezi and Michael Georgy in Dubai, Maha El Dahan in Baghdad, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)