US assassinates top Iranian terrorist mastermind as Middle East crisis escalates

US assassinates top Iranian terrorist mastermind as Middle East crisis escalates

U.S. Army Soldiers provide armed overwatch at the U.S. Embassy Compound in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 1, 2020. (DoD photo by British Lt. Col. Adrian Weale)

WASHINGTON — On the morning of January 2, the top two Pentagon officials warned Iran that preemptive military strikes were possible in the face of growing threats against the U.S., noting that “the game has changed.”

On the evening of January 2, the Pentagon acted.

The U.S. took out Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, killing the mastermind behind the death of hundreds of U.S. forces during the Iraq war — and dramatically changing the nature of the U.S.-Iran confrontation.

In a statement, the Pentagon said that Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region” and “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.

“He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel.  General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week,” the statement said.

It said the strike was an effort “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” — something not one observer or analyst believed would be the outcome.

Hours after the attack, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged U.S> citizens in Iraq to “depart immediately” in advance of any retaliation from Iran and its proxies.

Iran vowed retaliation. “The fight against terrorism and extremism in the region will be raised, and the path of resistance to US excesses will continue. The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime,” Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, said in. Tweet.

Also killed in the assassination strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — the Kataib Hezbollah leader responsible for recent rocket attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

The killings occurred on Iraqi soil, infuriating many members of the Iraqi government and renewing calls for lawmakers there to vote to order the U.S troops to depart.

It was also conducted without Congressional knowledge or approval — putting the legality of the assassination up for debate.

Earlier in the day Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the Pentagon was anticipating more attacks on personnel and facilities in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias and would conduct preemptive strikes if necessary. “The game has changed,’ Esper told Pentagon reporters.

Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was confident that the integrity of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked earlier this week, is strong. “There is sufficient combat power there, air and ground, that anyone who attempts to overrun that will run into a buzzsaw,’ Milley said.

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