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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1:10 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

US official: Baghdad strike was a "target of opportunity"

From CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh

The US airstrike at Baghdad International Airport that killed key Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani was a "target of opportunity," according to a US official.

The strike had presidential authorization, the source said. They opted for a pre-emptive strike after previous moves of maximum pressure didn't change Iran's pattern of behavior, the official said.

The killing of Soleimani, one of the most powerful men in Iran and the wider region, is an audacious and unexpected move that marks a major escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran that can be traced back to Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

It also comes just hours after the Pentagon issued a strong warning to Iran-backed militias amid concerns they may conduct further provocations against the US following their attempt to storm the US embassy in Baghdad.

Read more here.

12:32 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Iran foreign minister: "Foolish" strike is an "act of international terrorism"

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has described the US airstrike as an "act of international terrorism."

In a tweet posted from his official account, Zarif also described the act -- which killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani -- as "extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation."

"The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” he added.

1:40 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

In Iran, Qasem Soleimani is a revered figure

Analysis by CNN's Fareed Zakaria

It's difficult to convey just how revered Qasem Soleimani is in Iran.

To the United States, Soleimani -- who was killed in Friday's strike -- was the head of a terrorist organization.

But to people in Iran, Soleimani looms larger than almost any other figure. He's seen as brave -- and troops love him.

He's also been the mastermind of Iran's policies in Syria and Iraq.

More here:

12:43 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Aftermath of an airstrike

Images released by the Iraqi government show the devastation following the deadly airstrike outside Baghdad International Airport.

The strike killed Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force unit -- among others.

According to the Iraqi military, three rockets struck near the air cargo hall. A number of citizens were also wounded.

Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/AP
Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/AP

Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/AP
Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/AP

12:19 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Middle East expert: "This is a huge deal"

The fact that today's strike happened on Iraqi soil is significant, according to Feisal Istrabadi, the founding director of the Indiana University Center for the Study of the Middle East.

According to Istrabadi, the Iraqi government will be considerably weakened by that. "There will be an opportunity for the destabilization of the country," he told CNN. "This is a huge deal throughout the Middle East.

"The fact that it was done over the territory of Iraq means that Iraq will become what I feared it would become from the beginning: the battleground between Iran and the United States."

He questioned what America's plan was for keeping Iraq stable after this strike.

"I fear they do not have one," he said.

Watch his analysis here:

12:02 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

Trump tweeted an American flag after the Baghdad strike

US President Donald Trump hasn't put out a written statement following the strike.

But after news of the strike in Baghdad broke, Trump tweeted a picture of the American flag.

Republican politicians have responded positively to the attacks, thanking Trump for standing up for America. But Democrats have questioned whether today's action could lead to war.

See Trump's tweet here:

11:59 p.m. ET, January 2, 2020

The US warned about the possibility of preemptive action

Today's strike doesn't come out of the blue.

This week, PMF supporters and members attempted to storm the US embassy in Baghdad.

On Thursday, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the US “will take preemptive action” if they detect an attack is imminent. 

He told reporters that Iranian-backed forces “may do” additional provocations against US interests and if they do, “they will likely regret it."

"We are prepared to exercise self-defense and we are prepared to deter further bad behavior from these groups all of which are sponsored, directed and resourced by Iran,” he said.  
11:58 p.m. ET, January 2, 2020

What do we know about Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis?

The two men confirmed dead in today's strike were both key military leaders.

Qasem Soleimani was the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force unit. The US considers the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization.

According to the Pentagon, 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 added. The Pentagon also blamed Soleimani for orchestrating attacks on coalition bases in Iraq in recent months, including an attack on December 27 that culminated in the deaths of additional American and Iraqi personnel.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was the deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF is a Shia paramilitary force made up of former militias with close ties to Iran. It was recognized under a 2016 Iraqi law as an independent military force that answers directly to the prime minister.

12:38 a.m. ET, January 3, 2020

What you need to know about Friday's airstrike

What happened?

In the early hours of Friday morning, a strike hit Baghdad International Airport. The Iraqi military said three rockets were fired at the airport.

Who was killed?

Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force unit, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), were among those killed in the attack, according to the PMF. The total number of people killed is unclear.

Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force unit.
Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force unit. Photo by MEHDI GHASEMI/ISNA/AFP via Getty Images

Who was responsible?

The US has claimed responsibility for the strike. In a statement, the Pentagon said the strike was directed by President Donald Trump -- and was aimed at "deterring future Iranian attack plans."

What's been the reaction in the US?

There's been an outpouring of support from Republican politicians, who have thanked Trump for standing up for America. Democrats have warned the move could start a war.

How have the PMF and IRGC responded?

PMF said the pair were "martyred" by an American strike. IRGC also confirmed Soleimani was "martyred."

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images