Iran's top general Soleimani killed in US strike

By Jessie Yeung, Fernando Alfonso III, Tara John, Julia Hollingsworth, Rob Picheta, Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 4:26 a.m. ET, January 4, 2020
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3:50 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

US tells citizens to depart Iraq immediately

The US State Department has urged its citizens in Iraq to depart "immediately" due to "heightened tensions" in the region.

Its statement also told citizens to stay away from the US Embassy in Iraq, which was stormed by pro-Iranian protesters on Tuesday.

The French government has also warned its citizens to stay away from any gatherings in Iran. A statement on the French Embassy's website on Friday advised them to stay “prudent and discreet."

It also recommends people do not take pictures in public spaces.

3:47 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

China calls for the US to show "restraint"

From CNN's Yong Xiong in Beijing

The Chinese government has called for calm in the Middle East, in its first reaction to the US airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani.

Geng Shuang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said at a daily briefing: “We attach high importance to the recent incidents. China has always opposed the use of forces in the international relations, and advocates that all parties should practically abide by the purpose and principle of UN Charter and basic norm of international relations."

"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq should be respected, and the peace and stability in the Middle East and Gulf area should be maintained," he added.

"We urge all the relevant parties, especially the US, to exercise restraint and prevent the escalation of the tensions.”

3:37 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Rouhani vows retaliation for strike

From CNN’s Sara Mazloumsaki

Rouhani on the sidelines of the 2018 United Nations General Assembly.
Rouhani on the sidelines of the 2018 United Nations General Assembly. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has given his first reaction to the death of top military commander Qasem Soleimani saying the strike was a "cowardly act" and "another sign of America's frustration and helplessness in the region.”

Rouhani, like other top Iran officials, also vowed retaliation for his death. “Undoubtedly, the great nation of Iran and other free nations of the region will take revenge for this terrible crime by the criminal Americans," he said in a public statement published by Iran’s official news agency.

Rouhani also honored Soleimani’s accomplishments, calling him a hero of Iranian history who defended against terrorism. 

“I condemn this cruel act but at the same time honor the brilliant service of this brave and enduring hero of Iran's history who defended the country's territorial integrity and led the fight against terrorism and extremism in the region.”

The President then extended his condolences to the Supreme Leader, commander-in-chief, the people of Iran, the Revolutionary Guards, the victims’ loved ones, and especially Soleimani’s family, the statement read.

The Pentagon said Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members, and the wounding of thousands more.

The Pentagon also blamed the Iranian general for orchestrating attacks on coalition bases in Iraq in recent months, including an attack on December 27 that culminated in the deaths of an American contractor and Iraqi personnel.

3:45 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Who was Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian commander killed by a US airstrike?

From CNN's Nectar Gan

Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (center) was killed by a US airstrike at Baghdad airport.
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (center) was killed by a US airstrike at Baghdad airport.

Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump at Baghdad International Airport on Friday, was hailed as a hero in Iran -- brave, charismatic and beloved by the troops.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once called him a "living martyr of the revolution." But the United States viewed Iran's top general as a ruthless killer.

One of Iran's most powerful men, Soleimani cut a highly controversial figure. He was head of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, an elite unit that handles Iran's overseas operations -- and one deemed to be a foreign terrorist organization by the US.

Having started his front-line military career in the Iran-Iraq war during the early 1980s, Soleimani rose to prominence to become an indispensable figure in Iran, playing an instrumental role in spreading its influence in the Middle East.

"He's been in combat his entire life. His soldiers love him. He's a quiet, charismatic guy, a strategic genius and a tactical operator," Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst, told CNN.

"These are all the kind of things, looking at him from the enemy's perspective, (that) is going to create a great deal of angst in this part of the world."

The Pentagon says Soleimani and his troops were "responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more."

Read the rest of the article here

3:04 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

What is the US logic to this strike?

Analysis from CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in London.

The strike may have been a "target of opportunity" but it clearly had presidential authorisation for longer than just last night. The US clearly wants to send the signal that this is deliberate. But it is escalatory and brings the region to a new brink of unpredictable chaos. So how could they possibly calculate this was a good idea?

Well, Iran has been attacking the US and its allies via proxies for months. They are accused of hitting Saudi oilfields. A US drone before that. Oil tankers in the Gulf. And this week they directed attacks at the US Embassy in Baghdad, the US says.

The US is already being attacked by pro-Iranian forces, their officials could argue, so the US logic might be that any response from Iran will be a worsening of the same asymmetrical paper cuts already being inflicted.

It is true to note that Iran does not have the military might to tackle the US in an open conventional war. US officials may argue that they needed to send a strong signal that this White House was not gun-shy and would fight violence with violence, regardless of any denials from Tehran.

They may have decided the strength of this signal of US resolve, and removing the hardliner's hardliner Soleimani from the equation, was worth the risk of the next weeks of chaos and retaliation. 

But like with all strategies there is a flaw. The Iranians have a plan. They had one for Iraq, where they continue to have influence despite protests, whereas the US doesn't really. They have one for Syria, from which the US keeps wanting to withdraw. They have proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, all able to extract a price from American allies. They can also extract a price from Israel, where Lebanon's Hezbollah has rockets aimed towards this key US ally, and a direct line to Iran. Iran is strategic, and it is patient.

Iran is also facing a White House where key personnel change annually. There is little Iranian expertise around President Donald Trump at this moment -- key officials often chosen simply for their hardline stance.

Brian Hook, Trump's Iran point man, has limited experience in this -- his only issue.

There is a wealth of expertise in the State Department and other agencies, but their morale is surely not at its peak after recent cuts and turmoil.

So we are left with an emphatic and game-changing signal from the US, made with the belief that the consequences will be unknowable, but probably manageable. One certainty will be that Tehran will seek to exact a price in a way that shatters that belief.

3:04 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Iran’s Foreign Minister: Soleimani assassination will strengthen resistance against US in region

Javad Zarif called the strike an "obvious crime."
Javad Zarif called the strike an "obvious crime."

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the US assassination of Soleimani and said it would only strengthen the resistance against the US, according to a statement released on Friday.

“The brutality and stupidity of American terrorist forces in terror of Commander Soleimani…will undoubtedly strengthen the tree of resistance in the region and the world,” Zarif said in the statement.  

At the end of his statement, Zarif stressed that Iran’s foreign ministry would use all its political, legal and international capacities to hold the US accountable for what Zarif called an “obvious crime.” 

3:07 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Hamas condemns Soleimani's killing

Hamas has condemned the the death of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in a statement Friday, where it accused the United States of planting "seeds of tension in the region."

The militant fundamentalist Islamic organization, which operates in the West Bank and Gaza, described Soleimani "as one of the most prominent Iranian military leaders, who had a prominent role in supporting the Palestinian resistance in various fields."

The Islamic Resistance Movement condemns these unethical acts and crimes by the Unites States to plant the seeds of tension in the region and to serve of the criminal Zionist enemy.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hamas receives significant financial aid from Iran, but the group began distancing itself from its long-time sponsor in protest at Tehran's backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime's crackdown on anti-government activists.

2:31 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Here's what happened overnight

Qasem Soleimani (center) was killed in an airstrike ordered by US President Donald Trump.
Qasem Soleimani (center) was killed in an airstrike ordered by US President Donald Trump. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

Morning to those who have just joined us.

Overnight, one of the most powerful men in Iran was killed at Baghdad International Airport in an airstrike ordered by US President Donald Trump -- marking a major escalation of hostilities between Washington and Tehran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to avenge Qasem Soleimani, who commanded the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force unit, whom he called a martyr in a statement on Friday.

Earlier, the Pentagon accused Soleimani of "actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region," and cited the threat to US lives as justification for killing one of Iran's top-ranking military officials.

A US official told CNN that the strike was a "target of opportunity," and they opted for a pre-emptive option after the previous moves of their "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, had not changed its pattern of behavior.

Among the several people killed was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who is the leader of the Iranian backed Kataib Hezbollah militia and deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

3:15 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Top cyber official: "Time to brush up on" Iranian hackers' tactics

A top cyber official from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tweeted on Thursday that it was "time to brush up on" the tactics used by Iranian hackers amid an escalation of hostilities between the US and Iran.

Chris Krebs, the Director fo the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), shared a statement shared by the DHS in June, which stated that it was aware "of a recent rise in malicious cyber activity directed at United States industries and government agencies by Iranian regime actors and proxies."

“Iranian regime actors and proxies are increasingly using destructive ‘wiper’ attacks, looking to do much more than just steal data and money. These efforts are often enabled through common tactics like spear phishing, password spraying, and credential stuffing. What might start as an account compromise, where you think you might just lose data, can quickly become a situation where you’ve lost your whole network," the statement said.

“In times like these it’s important to make sure you’ve shored up your basic defenses, like using multi-factor authentication, and if you suspect an incident - take it seriously and act quickly," it added.