General Qassem Soleimani, who ran Iranian military operations in Iraq and Syria, was killed at Baghdad airport on Friday in the strike ordered by Donald Trump.
An armed American drone is thought to have hit the general’s vehicle on an access road near the airport after he left his plane following its arrival from either Lebanon or Syria.
The attack threatens to dramatically increase tensions between the US and Iran, with Iran’s President warning of retaliation.
Who is General Qassem Soleimani?
As head of Iran’s Quds Force, the elite, external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he spearheaded Iranian military operations in the Middle East and was one of the most powerful people in Iran, reporting directly into the Supreme Leader.
The 62-year-old led all of Iran’s expeditionary forces and regularly travelled from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
The Quds Force, designated a terror organisation by the US last year, has been blamed by the Pentagon for the deaths of hundreds of US servicemen and women.
Born in March 1957, General Soleimani grew up near the Iranian town of Rabor. He was working in construction by the time he was 13 but went on to later joined the Revolutionary Guard in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
After the Iraq-Iran war, he disappeared from public view for several years, but later became head of the Quds Force, overseeing the Guard’s foreign operations and coming to the attention of the US.
US General David Petraeus recounted a message from Soleimani: “He said, ‘Gen Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan’”.
The US and the United Nations put Gen Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though his travels continued.
In Iran, Soleimani is regarded as a hero. In the coverage of his death, Press TV, the Iranian state broadcaster's English-language outlet, cited Soleimani as a key figure in countering the growth of Isis.
The broadcaster said he had played “a major role in defending Iran against its enemies and assisting regional countries fight foreign occupation and terrorism”.
Why did the US kill him?
The US Defence Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”.
It said: “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
The US also accused Soleimani of approving attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week, and has blamed Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry.
The move is the latest in growing tensions between Iran and the US following Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to withdraw the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
What has the reaction been?
Iran has threatened retaliation following the killing of General Soleimani.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said in a statement: “Soleimani’s martyrdom will make Iran more decisive to resist America’s expansionism and to defend our Islamic values. With no doubt, Iran and other freedom-seeking countries in the region will take his revenge.”
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter: “The US’ act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani – THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al – is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
Reaction in the US
Donald Trump’s reaction was pretty blunt, with the US President tweeting a picture of the US flag shortly after the attack was confirmed as a US operation.
However, the general’s death could cause fallout in the US, with some questioning the President’s authority to launch the strike.
The strike was ordered while the US Congress is in recess.
While it has been portrayed as a response to a direct and imminent threat - which would allow the President authority to act without congressional approval - the Pentagon hasn’t presented evidence to suggest that Soleimani was planning a new attack against the US.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said on Twitter: “The justification for the assassination is to ‘deter future Iranian attacks’. One reason we don’t generally assassinate foreign political officials is the belief that such action will get more, not less, Americans killed. That should be our real, pressing and grave worry tonight.”
Fellow Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal said Mr Trump owed a full explanation to Congress and the American people.
He said: “The present authorisations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades.”
Mr Trump’s supporters backed the move.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo he said showed Iraqis dancing in the street “thankful that General Soleimani is no more”.
Senator Lindsey Graham wrote on Twitter: “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more.”
Reaction from experts
Former Middle East minister Alistair Burt said the situation was “extremely serious”.
Mr Burt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is no agreement as to a base of the confrontations in the region, there is a completely different narrative put forward by the Iranians for what is happening in the region to that which is put forward by the United States and others – there is no meeting between to two.”
Asked whether the airstrike was an unwise move by the US, Mr Burt said it “takes the confrontation between the United States and Iran to a completely different level”.
He said: “It is the killing of a very senior political as well as military commander.”
Mr Burt added: “Any action where you cannot foresee immediate consequences, take steps to prevent the most difficult consequences, you know, puts the region on edge and makes life more difficult for everyone.
“It’s very hard to see what the consequences will be. I’m quite sure the United States will have to come out with more justification for its actions – what has caused this.
“But I think everyone has got to have extremely cool heads this morning. This is a very grave escalation in the affairs of the region, the consequences are unknowable and I think words and comments have got to be extremely carefully handled today.”
How could this impact the UK?
The killing of General Soleimani is thought by many to be likely to bring an escalation of tensions in the region and beyond, spiralling into a much larger conflict that could affect the UK as well as other countries.
Speaking on Radio 4, Alistair Burt said the risks and consequences facing UK military personnel based in the Middle East “are much greater this morning than they were before”.
Asked whether UK troops based in the region are in danger, he said: “Well, personnel are in danger in the region anyway as we’ve seen in recent times, and any of the actions that have been taken in the region could have had a consequence of starting a direct confrontation, and therefore military personnel in the region could have been at risk.
“But there’s no doubt that risks and consequences are much greater this morning than they were before, but they’re unknown on all sides, but the United States would no doubt say that personnel was at risk already from action taken by the Iranians.
“The question is to what extent have any of those consequences been satisfactorily resolved by this action. And it would seem, at this stage, very unlikely that there’s a positive answer to that.”
MP Stella Creasy called for parliament to be recalled for a statement from the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary.
Sharing another tweet on the issue, in which the moment was described as a “major provocation/act of war”, she wrote: “That parliament not due to meet until Tuesday surely unsustainable in such circumstances. Needs urgent statement from PM or foreign sec accordingly.”