WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that he ordered the drone strikes that killed Iran’s top military leader to prevent future attacks against Americans.
“We caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump said, adding that “we take comfort in knowing his reign of terror is over.”
Trump rejected concerns that his decision to kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, would draw the U.S. into a wider conflict in the Middle East.
“We took action last night to stop a war,” he said. “We did not take action to start a war.”
Tehran vowed “harsh retaliation” for the attack, as a Pentagon official said that at least 3,000 more Army troops were heading to the Middle East.
U.S. officials offered few details of what they said was a plot by Soleimani to kill American soldiers and diplomats. The mention of diplomats seemed to suggest that targets included an American embassy — possibly the one in Baghdad that was stormed by pro-Iran militias last week.
“There was an imminent attack,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said on Fox News. “What was sitting before us was his travels throughout the region and his efforts to make a significant strike against Americans. There would have been many Muslims killed as well — Iraqis, people in other countries as well.”
Soleimani was killed by multiple U.S. drone strikes late Thursday as he drove in a convoy from the Baghdad airport, according to a military officer familiar with the details who was not authorized to speak publicly. Also killed were Abu Mahdi Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and six other people, according to Iraqi security officials. The Associated Press quoted other Iraqi officials as saying Soleimani’s body was torn to pieces, and he was identified by a ring he wore.
“We’ve made clear to the Iranians that we weren’t going to tolerate the killing of Americans,” Pompeo said on CNN.
Soleimani was a cultural icon in Iran and the reputed mastermind behind the Islamic Republic’s military operations throughout the region, backing Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Hezbollah party in Lebanon and other groups. He also helped fight against Islamic State militants who at one point seized large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The brazen attack immediately inflamed tensions in the region. Already, Washington and Tehran have been engaged in a steadily simmering tit-for-tat conflict since Trump withdrew from the 2015 landmark Iran nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions that have battered Tehran’s economy.
The United States urged citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” and closed consular services at the embassy in Baghdad. Some flights to the country were canceled.
Pentagon officials said that 3,000 to 3,500 troops from 82nd Airborne Division are deploying to Kuwait. That’s in addition to the 600 sent earlier this week in response to Baghdad embassy protests.
“The brigade will deploy to Kuwait as an appropriate and precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, and will assist in reconstituting the reserve,” said a Defense Department official.
In between several television appearances, Pompeo was telephoning numerous world leaders to inform them of the administration’s action and to insist the United States “remains committed to de-escalation.” Several allies said the killing was unwise and urged restraint on all sides.
One group Trump did not inform was Congress, as he quickly turned the airstrike into another political wedge issue.
His first public comments were made on Twitter, where he complained that Soleimani should have been killed years ago.
He also shared laudatory remarks from supporters and rejected concerns that administration officials should have briefed congressional leaders about the strike ahead of time. Trump retweeted a comment from a conservative commentator that compared briefing Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to giving a heads-up to the Iranians.
Trump has been in Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort, for the holiday, golfing almost every day. He was scheduled to speak to evangelical supporters at a campaign event in Miami on Friday afternoon.
“Harsh retaliation is waiting” for the United States, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in Tehran as he declared three days of mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him. Iranian experts said Soleimani had already groomed a new generation of fighters and suggested the void he leaves might be quickly filled.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a relative moderate, called the strike “an act of state terrorism and violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
The region braced for a counterstrike from Iran, although that may not happen immediately and could take place in a number of places.
“What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Soleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation, and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst who focused on Iranian-backed militias while serving in Iraq.
“The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means,” she said, referring to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. “The Trump administration has made a different calculation.” She added, “It is critical that the administration has thought out the moves and counter-moves this attack will precipitate.”
Oil prices surged on news of the killing and markets were mixed.
The tensions between Iran and Trump are rooted in his decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
It’s unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.
But American officials have blamed Iran for the two-day embassy attack in Baghdad, which ended Wednesday. No one was killed or wounded in the protests, which breached the compound but appeared to be mainly a show of force.
The attack at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia operating in Iraq and Syria. That was in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.
Los Angeles Times writers David S. Cloud and Eli Stokols contributed to this report.