WASHINGTON: General Qasem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, was killed in a precision US air strike in Iraq ordered by President Donald Trump, the Pentagon announced on Friday, dramatically escalating tensions in the strategic Gulf region.
General Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite al-Quds force and architect of its regional security apparatus, was killed following a US airstrike at Baghdad's international airport on Friday.
The strike also killed the deputy chief of Iraq's powerful Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force.
The Pentagon confirmed the death of Soleimani, 62, in Iraq, saying the strike was carried out at the direction of Trump.
"At the direction of the president, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation," the Pentagon said.
Following Soleimani's death, President Trump, now on vacation in Florida, did not comment immediately, except for tweeting an image of the US flag.
The strike comes days after Trump threatened Tehran after Iraqi supporters of pro-Iranian regime factions laid siege to the US embassy in Baghdad, following deadly American air strikes on a hardline Hashed faction.
The Pentagon alleged that the strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.
"General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more," it alleged.
It said that Soleimani had "orchestrated" attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months - including the attack on December 27 - culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel.
"General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad that took place this week," it said.
"The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world," it said.
Reacting to Soleimani's death, Iran said the country and the "free nations of the region" will take revenge on the United States.
"There is no doubt that the great nation of Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America," President Hasan Rouhani said, referring to Iran's allies across the Middle East.
Soleimani's "martyrdom" by the aggressor and criminal America has saddened the heart of the nation of Iran and all the nations of the region," he said in a statement posted on the Iranian government website.
His death had "redoubled the determination of the nation of Iran and other free nations to stand against America's bullying and defend Islamic values", he said.
Trump's decision was supported by his former Cabinet colleague, Indian American Nikki Haley, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations.
"Qasem Soleimani was an arch terrorist with American blood on his hands. His demise should be applauded by all who seek peace and justice. Proud of President Trump for doing the strong and right thing," she tweeted.
"The defensive actions the US has taken against #Iran & its proxies are consistent with clear warnings they have received," Senator Marco Rubio said in a tweet.
"They chose to ignore these warnings because they believed @POTUS was constrained from acting by our domestic political divisions. They badly miscalculated," he said.
In a statement, Defence Priorities Senior Fellow Lt.Col (rtd) Daniel L.Davis, alleged that Soleimani 'had 'a lot of blood' on his hands.
"Following this latest action, every possible precaution should be taken to safeguard US military forces in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the region, who remain vulnerable to retaliatory strikes. The best way to keep US forces safe is to remove them from the region," he said.
Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Congratulated Trump on his decisive action and the successful outcome.
"Qasem Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and his death presents an opportunity for Iraq to determine its own future free from Iranian control," Risch said.
"As I have previously warned the Iranian government, they should not mistake our reasonable restraint in response to their previous attacks as weakness.
The U.S. will always vigorously defend our interests and allies in the face of terrorist conduct and provocations," Risch said.
Ties between the US and Iran have deteriorated since Washington pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.
It then reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, aiming to choke off its oil exports.