US airstrike kills Iran's powerful Quds Force leader

One of Iran’s most powerful generals was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, the Pentagon confirmed Thursday, a development that is sure to send shock waves throughout the Middle East and prompt retaliation from Iran.

“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization," the Pentagon said in a statement.

"This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans," the Pentagon added. "The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world."

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Soleimani was killed in a strike at Baghdad International Airport alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraqi state TV first reported Thursday.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE, without any additional comment, tweeted a picture of the American flag Thursday night after the reports of Soleimani's death emerged.

Iran hawks in the United States cheered Soleimani’s death.

“The defensive actions the U.S. has taken against #Iran & its proxies are consistent with clear warnings they have received,” Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioApple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Surging Sanders draws fresh scrutiny ahead of debate MORE (R-Fla.) tweeted. “They chose to ignore these warnings because they believed @POTUS was constrained from acting by our domestic political divisions. They badly miscalculated.”

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsRepublicans criticize Pelosi for gifting pens used to sign impeachment articles Trump, Democrats set for brawl on Iran war powers Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers MORE (R-N.C.) tweeted without elaboration: “America has the greatest military in the world. God bless our soldiers.”

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The reverberations from Soleimani’s death could be multitude, including the possibility that the proxy war that has been building between the United States and Iran could spill out into open conflict.

The U.S. military struck an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq on Sunday after a rocket attack Friday that the Trump administration blamed on the militia killed a U.S. contractor and wounded four U.S. troops.

The militia and its supporters responded by storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, prompting the U.S. military to deploy 100 Marines as reinforcements at the embassy and 750 more troops to the region.

The situation appeared calmer earlier Thursday after the demonstrators withdrew from the embassy compound the day before.

But Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Senate Dems urge Esper to oppose shifting Pentagon money to border wall Overnight Defense: GAO finds administration broke law by withholding Ukraine aid | Senate opens Trump trial | Pentagon to resume training Saudi students soon MORE warned Thursday morning that the United States had indications Iran or its proxies could carry out more attacks — adding that the U.S. military was prepared to take preemptive action.

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In its statement Thursday night, the Pentagon accused Soleimani of “actively developing plans” to attack U.S. troops and diplomats in Iraq and the region.

“He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months — including the attack on December 27th — culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel," the Pentagon said. "General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week."

But as news spread of Soleimani’s death, critics questioned whether Trump, who has claimed to want to end so-called forever wars in the Middle East, was prepared to handle the ramifications that could come.

“Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim US citizen dies in Egyptian prison after hunger strike President Trump's strike of choice MORE (D-Conn.) tweeted. “The question is this — as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”