(CN) - U.S. forces, at the behest of President Trump, launched an airstrike near Baghdad's international airport Thursday evening that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force in a move that is expected to provoke retaliation from Iran.
Calling it a "decisive defensive action," the Defense Department released a statement saying the strike was meant to curtail future attacks against American troops and diplomats abroad.
"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," the statement said, adding that Soleimani "approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad" earlier in the week.
Iran-backed militias attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Eve. The attack prompted President Trump to deploy an additional 750 soldiers to the Middle East. The embassy attack occurred after the U.S. launched airstrikes on militia targets on Sunday that killed 25 fighters.
Iranian state television reported on the attack, saying that Soleimani was "martyred" along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Popular Mobilization Forces, Iran-supported militias that operate in Iraq. According to the PMF, the two were killed in the airstrike while driving in a vehicle to the airport.
Earlier on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned that Iran might be planning new attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, adding that Iran could expect further retaliatory attacks by the U.S.
“So do I think they may do something?” Esper said. “Yes, and they will likely regret it.”
President Donald Trump, who is currently staying at Mar-a-Lago, did not comment on the attack but tweeted a picture of the American flag Thursday night.
Soleimani commanded the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. The Quds Force has been involved in backing up President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war and had also deployed into Iraq following the death of Saddam Hussein.
Soleimani trained Iraqi militants in the creation and use of roadside bombs against U.S. forces, according to U.S. officials. Tensions have remained high between Iran and the U.S. since President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. The U.S. has since imposed crippling new sanctions on Iran.
Some 5,000 U.S. service members are stationed in Iraq to help stave off the Islamic State. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a press conference earlier on Thursday that the Iraqi government has to step up in curbing militias within the country.
“They have the capability,” he said. “It’s a question of political will, and that’s not for us to decide. That’s for the internal political dynamics of Iraq.”
Iraqi officials have been embroiled in claims of corruption. Massive protests across the country forced former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign last year. Esper said Iraq's political climate will force the U.S. to protect its troops.
“The game has changed,” Esper said. “And we’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region.”
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