BAGHDAD (AP) — Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport Friday, Iraqi television and three Iraqi officials said.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, the officials said.
Their deaths are a potential turning point in the Middle East and are expected to draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the Middle East against Israel and American interests.
The PMF blamed the United States for an attack at Baghdad International Airport Friday.
There was no immediate comment from the U.S. or Iran.
A senior Iraqi politician and a high-level security official confirmed to the Associated Press that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were among those killed in the attack. Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with the Kataeb Hezbollah, which was involved in the attack on the U.S. Embassy this week.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because they were not authorized to give official statements.
The senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.
Soleimani had been rumored dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. More recently, rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Earlier Friday, an official with an Iran-backed paramilitary force said that seven people were killed by a missile fired at Baghdad International Airport, blaming the United States.
The official with the group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces said the dead included its airport protocol officer, identifying him as Mohammed Reda.
A security official confirmed that seven people were killed in the attack on the airport, describing it as an airstrike. Earlier, Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which releases information regarding Iraqi security, said Katyusha rockets landed near the airport’s cargo hall, killing several people and setting two cars on fire.
It was not immediately clear who fired the missile or rockets or who was targeted. There was no immediate comment from the U.S.
The attack came amid tensions with the United States after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack which ended Wednesday prompted President Donald Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.
The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were 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.
U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.
“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the rocket attack on Dec. 27 that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.
He said the Iraqi government has fallen short of its obligation to defend its American partner in the attack on the U.S. embassy.
The developments also represent a major downturn in Iraq-U.S. relations that could further undermine U.S. influence in the region and American troops in Iraq and weaken Washington’s hand in its pressure campaign against Iran.