Los Angeles Times | By TRACY WILKINSON and CHRIS MEGERIAN | Jan. 3, 2020
WASHINGTON — President Trump, who has long insisted he was determined to avoid war, on Friday defended his orders to kill Iran’s top military leader, an action that has inflamed tensions throughout the Middle East and risks even wider conflict.
As thousands of American troops were being dispatched to the region and Iran threatened “harsh retaliation,” Trump said he ordered the drone strikes that killed Gen. Qassem Suleimani to prevent “imminent” attacks against Americans.
“We caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump said in his first public remarks on the targeted killing, adding that “we take comfort in knowing his reign of terror is over.”
By killing Suleimani on Iraqi territory, outside the Baghdad international airport, the administration also incensed Iraqi allies who do not want Washington and Tehran settling scores on their sovereign national territory. The Iraqi parliament will meet Sunday to consider ordering the U.S. to leave the country. In neighboring Iran, massive demonstrations filled Tehran streets with protesters chanting demands for “revenge.”
Trump rejected concerns that his decision to kill Suleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, would draw the U.S. into greater conflict in the Middle East. “We took action last night to stop a war,” he said. “We did not take action to start a war.” He insisted his goal is not regime change.
Trump and other senior administration officials said they were acting to prevent a specific attack being plotted by Suleimani that the State Department said would potentially kill “hundreds” of American diplomats and military personnel, and target facilities housing Americans. But officials refused to provide details.
“There was an imminent attack,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said on Fox News. “What was sitting before us was his travels throughout the region and his efforts to make a significant strike against Americans. There would have been many Muslims killed as well — Iraqis, people in other countries as well.”
Suleimani was killed by multiple U.S. drone strikes late Thursday as he drove in a two-vehicle convoy from the Baghdad airport, according to a military officer familiar with the details who was not authorized to speak publicly. Also killed were Abu Mahdi Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and six other people, according to Iraqi security officials. Suleimani and Muhandis were in separate cars. The Associated Press quoted other Iraqi officials as saying Suleimani’s body was torn to pieces, and he was identified by a ring he wore.
“We’ve made clear to the Iranians that we weren’t going to tolerate the killing of Americans,” Pompeo said on CNN.
Suleimani was a cultural icon in Iran and the reputed mastermind behind the Islamic Republic’s military operations throughout the region, backing Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Hezbollah party in Lebanon and other groups. He also helped fight against Islamic State militants who at one point seized large parts of Iraq and Syria.
He was “devilishly ingenious” and “unique,” said a senior State Department official who had dealings with Suleimani through the years. “There were things he could do that no one else could do,” said the official, who requested anonymity in keeping with administration protocol. “He was not a decentralized manager. He was a very hands-on, down-to-the-details manager.”
The brazen attack immediately roiled tensions in the region. Already, Washington and Tehran have been engaged in a steadily simmering tit-for-tat conflict since Trump withdrew from the 2015 landmark Iran nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions that have battered Tehran’s economy.
The United States urged citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” and closed consular services at the embassy in Baghdad. Some flights to the country were canceled.
Pentagon officials said that 3,000 to 3,500 troops from 82nd Airborne Division are deploying to Kuwait. That’s in addition to the 600 sent earlier this week in response to Baghdad embassy protests.
“The brigade will deploy to Kuwait as an appropriate and precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, and will assist in reconstituting the reserve,” said a Defense Department official.
In between several television appearances, Pompeo was telephoning numerous world leaders to inform them of the administration’s action and to insist the United States “remains committed to deescalation.” Several allies said the killing was risky and urged restraint on all sides.
One group President Trump did not inform was Congress, as he quickly turned the airstrike into another political wedge issue.
His first comments were made on Twitter, where he complained that Suleimani should have been killed years ago.
He also shared laudatory remarks from supporters and rejected concerns that administration officials should have briefed congressional leaders about the strike ahead of time. Trump retweeted a comment from a conservative commentator that compared briefing Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to giving a heads-up to the Iranians.
Trump has been at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Fla., resort, for the holiday, golfing almost every day. He addressed the Suleimani killing shortly before a campaign event with evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry in Miami.
“Harsh retaliation is waiting” for the United States, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in Tehran as he declared three days of mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Suleimani’s deputy, to replace him. Iranian experts said Suleimani had already groomed a new generation of fighters and suggested the void he leaves might be quickly filled.
“The path of resistance to U.S. excesses will continue,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a relative moderate, called the strike “an act of state terrorism and violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
The region braced for a counterattack from Iran, although that may not happen immediately and could take place in a number of venues.
Iran typically carefully calibrates its counterattacks, and popular support for an expensive, drawn-out conflict may not materialize, especially at a time of domestic economic and political upheaval, said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution.
“Over time, the Iranians have a way of making their feelings known,” she said. “Don’t be surprised if it takes time for the other shoe to drop.”
But, she said, while the country may rally around Suleimani’s memory, the fiery rhetoric being spouted now may not lead toward the kind of war that some fear. “The Iranians understand, better than anyone, the nature of the disparity in capabilities between their military and the United States,” she said.
It’s unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat.
American officials blamed Iran, and Suleimani specifically, for the two-day embassy attack in Baghdad, which ended Wednesday. No one was killed or wounded in the protests, which breached the compound and burned property but appeared to be mainly a show of force.
The attack at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia operating in Iraq and Syria. That was in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. also blamed on Iran.
By not briefing Capitol Hill leaders on what could prove to be a seismic decision, Trump could be left politically vulnerable by slighted members of Congress.
“Presidential administrations of both parties have traditionally consulted with Congress before conducting strategically significant military actions” both for bipartisan support and the airing of outside perspectives, said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“This is a situation that could easily and quickly escalate even further, and it is not clear that the Trump administration has a plan to prevent another catastrophic war in the Middle East.”
While Republican lawmakers have largely come out in support of the strike, many are seeking additional reassurances from the administration about its endgame and urging against further escalation.
“Iran’s going to do something, the question is: What is it?” said a longtime Republican operative close to the Trump administration. “You can’t just say you want to deescalate the situation after you start it. The concern is that we lit the fuse and don’t really know how long it is or what it leads to.”
Times staff writers David S. Cloud and Eli Stokols in Washington contributed to this report.