Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Donald Trump: Suleimani’s ‘reign of terror is over’

The US said it would send 3,500 more troops to the region and warned citizens in nearby countries to stay vigilant

US President Donald Trump has said the targeting of Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad airstrikes had ended the Iranian general’s “reign of terror”, adding that Washington’s aim was to “stop a war with Iran”.

Mr Trump said in a statement at Mar-a-lago in Palm Beach, Florida that the senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leader was a ruthless figure who "made the death of innocent people his sick passion”.

Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iran-backed Iraqi militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), were among ten people killed in the attack near Baghdad International Airport on Friday, Iraqi officials and local TV reported.

The US leader explained Suleimani’s killing had been intended “to stop a war", not start one, as senior State Department and Pentagon officials briefed that hundreds Americans lives had possibly been saved by the intervention.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US had "compelling, clear, unambiguous intelligence" of Suleimani plotting violent acts.

"Oh, by the way, it might still happen," Mr Milley said, referring to the planned attacks.

Early on Saturday in Baghdad, fresh airstrikes targeting a convoy carrying medics belonging to an Iran-backed militia near Taji stadium north of the city, the PMF said.

An Iraqi army source said six people were killed and three wounded.

World leaders urged the US and Iran to show restraint after Iran vowed “harsh retaliation” for a US military strike that killed Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Friday.

Their deaths are a potential turning point in the standoff between Washington and Tehran and could draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the Middle East against Israel and US interests.

Hours after the attack, Iran promised retribution. President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and vowed his country would “take revenge.” Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass onto the United States.

The country also named Suleimani's deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, as his successor. Brig Gen Qaani previously led Quds Force operations in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon then announced around 3,500 troops from the Immediate Response Force (IRF) brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division would be deployed in the region.

"The brigade will deploy to Kuwait as an appropriate and precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities, and will assist in reconstituting the reserve," the Pentagon said in a statement.

The troops will be joining the roughly 750 forces that were sent to Kuwait earlier this week.

As tensions continued to escalate, US embassies across the Middle East issued warnings to citizens.

Embassies in Pakistan, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE issued various levels of advice.

The US embassy in Islamabad instructed citizens to "monitor their surroundings for possible demonstrations and suspicious activity" and joined the embassy in Kuwait by advising citizens take actions including avoiding crowds, keeping a low profile and being aware of their surroundings.

Royal Jordanian and Gulf Air carriers also suspended flights to some Iraqi cities in the wake of the attack.

A US official told The National the attack on Suleimani was carried out by a drone. Al Muhandis had gone to the airport to receive the Iranian who had arrived from Beirut, and they were leaving the airport in separate vehicles when missiles struck their convoy, according to media reports.

The Fars news agency identified General Hussein Jaafari Naya, an officer in the IRGC as one of thoe killed, as well as three more junior officers in the IRGC and four Iraqi militiamen.

The strike came hours after US officials warned of pre-emptive action against any further action planned by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq following this week's attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.

In a statement the Pentagon said: "Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Suleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iraqis were "thankful" for the killing of the Iranian commander in a tweet accompanied by a video of people running through the streets with a giant Iraqi flag.

The violence has troubled Iraqis who have taken to the streets since October in massive rallies denouncing government corruption, lack of jobs and poor public services.

In the largest Iraqi protests for decades, tens of thousands have flooded the streets across the capital and the mainly Shiite south since the beginning of October.

More than 500 people have been killed and about 25,000 wounded in violence related to the protests.

In Tahrir Square, where protesters have been facing months of a crackdown often spearheaded by Iranian-backed militias, most stated they were happy to hear of Suleimani’s demise.

“Today America was one of God’s swords,” said Abbas, who did not want to give his real name out of fear of reprisals from Iranian-backed militia groups.

“He was responsible for everything, for those killed in the street,” Tahseen Ahmed, 20. He said that when he found out that Suleimani died he went and celebrated in the street.

Suleimani in Baghdad with Muhandis, right, and Imam Ali Brigade leader Shebl Al Zaydi.
Suleimani in Baghdad with Muhandis, right, and Imam Ali Brigade leader Shebl Al Zaydi.

But Abbas worried that the escalation of tensions would play out on Iraqi soil and that Iraq would become a battlefield for America and Iran.“Iran is a country without any wars, it wants to export all of its wars to Iraq,” he said. “For every action there is a reaction. There truly could be [a war,]” he said.

Mr Ahmed, like Abbas, feared that Iraq may pay the price for the developing conflict between the United States and Iran. “America and Iran hate each other. We don’t need to be in between them... the two destroyed Iraq. We don’t have anything to do with them but they put us in the middle.”

The PMF described the incident as a "cowardly US bombing".

"The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and Qassem Suleimani," said Ahmed Al Assadi, a spokesman for PMF.

Suleimani, who has had a key role in directing Iran-backed forces fighting in Syria and Iraq, had survived several assassination attempts by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

His Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran's borders, shored up support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat ISIS in Iraq.

Suleimani became head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran's ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government and Shiite militia groups in Iraq.

A funeral procession for Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and Qassem Suleimani is planned in Baghdad on Saturday.

The Popular Mobilisation Units, which reported to both Al Muhandis and Suleimani, announced that the funeral procession will begin at 10am, starting from the gates of the Green Zone and on towards Jadiriya suburb.

In response to what he called "accelerating regional developments", UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash called for "wisdom and balance" in the region. In a tweet, Dr Gargash said what was needed is the adoption of "political solutions rather than escalation and confrontation in the region". While he does not mention the killing of Suleimani directly, Dr Gargash said "the issues facing the region are complicated and have accumulated (over time) and suffers from the lack of trust between different sides". He added that "logical actions require a calm and unemotional approach".

Dr Gargash was joined in his warning by an array of world leaders and actors.

Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the kingdom had followed the events in Iraq, which came "as a result of the escalation of tensions and terrorist acts" that it has warned Iran against committing.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia... calls for the importance of self-restraint to ward off all acts that may lead to aggravating the situation with unbearable consequences," the statement published by the Saudi state news agency SPA read.

In a tweet, the UN Secretary Gerneral urged "maximum restraint". "The world cannot afford another Gulf War," Antonio Guterres said.

Mike Pompeo announced a flurry of phonecalls with his counterparts in other nations after the strike on Friday. He confirmed phone calls with representatives from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, the UK, Germany and China. In a series of tweets acknowledging the phonecalls, Mr Pompeo repeatedly stated the US was "committed to de-escalation".

Jaber Al Lamki, executive director of media and strategic communications at the UAE's National Media Council, said the killing of Suleimani was "a huge escalation of an already unstable situation in the Middle East".

"I hope cooler heads prevail," he tweeted.

Updated: January 5, 2020 09:58 AM

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