Americans Warned to Leave Iraq as Drone Strike Embroils Region

WASHINGTON (CN) — Responding to concerns over rising tensions one day after a U.S. drone killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite military force, President Donald Trump maintained that he took action to stop a war, not to start one.

“The world is a safer place without these monsters,” Trump said in a press conference this afternoon, calling the strike “flawless” and labeling Soleimani “the number one terrorist anywhere in the world.”

Protesters burn a U.S. flag during a demonstration Friday in Tehran over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran has vowed “harsh retaliation” for the U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed Tehran’s top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Soleimani, who was highly regarded as one of the most powerful figures in the Islamic Republic, operated as the head of the Quds Force. After disembarking from a plane, he was killed on an access road close to Baghdad’s international airport along with nine others, including Hashed al-Shaabi, the deputy chief of Iraq’s powerful paramilitary force. As reported by Iraqi news outlets, the blast tore Soleimani to pieces, but his body was identified by a ring he used to wear.

The Pentagon proclaimed the strike a counterblow to the 36-rocket attack that killed an American contractor at an Iraqi base on Dec. 27. Soleimani organized this attack and also approved attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Iran Tuesday, according to a release from the Defense Department. Tuesday’s attacks took place after the U.S. conducted airstrikes over the weekend that killed about 25 members of the Kataeb Hezbollah paramilitary group.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged the 62-year-old general’s death in a tweet Friday, saying “the path of resistance to US excesses will continue.”

“The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime,” Rouhani continued.

Similarly, at a press conference, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. Referring tot he general as the “international face of resistance,” Khamenei declared three days of morning and appointed Major General Esmail Ghaani, a former deputy of Soleimani’s, as the new head of the Quds Force.

The State Department meanwhile issued a security alert telling U.S. citizens to get out of Iraq.

“Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, we urge U.S. citizens to depart Iraq immediately,” the State Department tweeted Friday. “Due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all consular operations are suspended. U.S. citizens should not approach the Embassy.”

Ahead of his press conference, Trump tweeted from the private club in Palm Beach, Florida, where he is vacationing that the strike was ordered because Soleimani was “plotting to kill” many Americans.

“He should have been taken out many years ago!” the tweet continues.

Soleimani’s high-profile killing was ordered by Trump at the start of a year wherein he is set both to be tried by the Senate following his impeachment in the House and to run for re-election.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi noted late Thursday that the U.S. Congress was not consulted about the airstrike. 

“American leaders’ highest priority is to protect American lives and interests,” she said in a statement. “But we cannot put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions.”

She noted that the airstrike risks provoking a dangerous escalation of violence. Any retaliation by Iran could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria at minimum.

A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the U.S. airstrike in Iraq, prior to the Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Numerous Democratic presidential candidates have issued statements criticizing Trump’s move to take out Soleimani as dangerous.

“Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans,” Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted Thursday. “But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war.”

Likewise, former Vice President Joe Biden noted that while no American will mourn Soleimani’s passing, his killing would almost certainly provoke attacks by Iran.

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” Biden said in a statement.

Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted Thursday that the action “brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.”

Other politicians voiced support for Friday’s strike, implying it was a power move by the U.S.

“To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” tweeted Senator Lindsey Graham.

Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, tweeted that he hoped “this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.” 

Tensions between Washington and Iran have been heightened since Trump withdrew the U.S. from an Obama-era nuclear deal between Iran and other world powers in May 2018. Afterward, Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and took U.S. oil tankers. Iraq, whose government is allied with both Washington and Tehran, has become a battleground for the two countries.  The Department issued a travel advisory for Iraq on Jan. 1, warning U.S. citizens not to go to the country.

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