Iran's top intelligence and security commander was killed in a drone strike on the orders of President Trump, as tensions escalated between the U.S and Iran.

President Trump says he is not looking at regime change in Iran

President Donald Trump, speaking from his Mar-a-Lago golf club in Florida, addressed the killing of Qassem Soleimani for the first time in a televised speech Friday afternoon.

“As president, my highest and most solemn duty is the defense of our nation and our citizens. Last night, at my direction, the United States military successfully executed a flawless precision strike that killed a number one terrorist anywhere in the world, Qassem Soleimani.”

Soleimani, said Trump, "was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and American military personnel, but we caught him in the act, and terminated him.

"For years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and its ruthless Quds force under Soleimani’s leadership has targeted injured and murdered hundreds of American civilians and servicing the recent attacks on US targets in Iraq, including rocket strikes that killed an American and injured four American servicemen very badly, as well as a violent assault on our embassy in Baghdad, were carried out at the direction of Soleimani.

“Soleimani made the death of innocent people is sick passion, contributing to terrorist plots as far away as New Delhi and London,” said Trump. "Today we remember and honor the victims of Soleiman’s many atrocities and we take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over. "

Soleimani “has been perpetrating acts of terror to destabilize the Middle East for the last 20 years,” said Trump. “What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago, a lot of lives would have been saved. Just recently Soleimani led the brutal repression of protesters in Iran, where more than 1,000 innocent civilians were tortured and killed by their own government.”

Trump said the action taken was "to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

“I have deep respect for the Iranian people,” said Trump. “They are a remarkable people with an incredible heritage and unlimited potential.

“We do not seek regime change,” he said. “However, the Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors must end and it must end now. The future belongs to the people of Iran, those who seek peaceful coexistence and cooperation, not to terrorists warlords who plunder their nation to finance bloodshed abroad.”

82nd on the way

The 82nd Airborne Division is preparing to deploy thousands more paratroopers to the Middle East amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Earlier this week, 750 paratroopers from 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, deployed to the region after protesters set fire to a reception building on the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The rest of the brigade is currently preparing to deploy, a military official said on background, and they expect to broadcast the decision Saturday morning.

The deployments will occur over the next week as the paratroopers prepare to posture in Kuwait. A small element will go to Baghdad to provide force protection to the diplomatic mission there. The rest of the paratroopers will act as a response force to regional threats. There are roughly 4,000 soldiers in a brigade.

The deployment also comes as the 82nd Airborne Division implements for the first time changes in how it deploys paratroopers during emergency situations.

The new deployment model, called the Immediate Response Force, emphasizes joint operations and brings more air assets, cyber capabilities and logistical support to paratroopers, according to a primer for the new model viewed by Army Times.

The new plan replaces the Global Response Force model that the division previously utilized, but appears to more heavily emphasize joint forcible entry operations and airborne assaults into denied environments, like that which Iran can produce through air defense systems and cyber attacks.

The framework includes an emphasis on penetrating enemy airspace using U.S. Air Force combat aircraft to set conditions for paratroopers, the delivery of a mass tactical assault force on one-lift operations with roughly 2,500 paratroopers, more robust electronic warfare capabilities, expanded logistical networks, and distributed mission command and control throughout an entire operation.

"The region, if possible, has just become more complicated”

Retired Army general and former U.S. Central Command commander Joseph Votel dealt directly with Qassem Soleimani’s malign influence in the region for years.

"Qassem Soleimani was a bad actor with significant American blood on his hands,” Votel said in an email to Military Times.

Votel also served in the region as the head of U.S. Special Operations Command and before that the commander of Joint Special Operations Command,

If Soleimani “was indeed plotting against our people or interests (and I trust our IC professionals and their assessments) — then we have an obligation to protect ourselves. The region, if possible, has just become more complicated.”

His death raises a lot of questions about second- and third-order effects, Votel said.

“There are unknown consequences for force protection, partnerships, regional security and both our strategy against Iran (the Maximum Pressure Campaign) and the National Defense Strategy which prioritizes our competitive advantage against Great Powers,” he said.

Popmeo hails death of Soleimani

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Trump administration’s move to take out Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani saved U.S. lives, and has made the world safer.

“The American people should know that President Trump’s decision to remove Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There’s no doubt about that,” Pompeo said in an interview Friday morning with CNN. “He was actively plotting in the region to take action -- a big action as he described it -- that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.”

“We know it was imminent, this was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process,” Pompeo, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served as a cavalry officer in the Army, added.

On Thursday evening, the Pentagon issued a statement confirming that a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad International Airport had killed Soleimani, and that the Iranian general was plotting to attack U.S. troops and American diplomats in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Pompeo reiterated that the threat spread outside Iraq through proxy forces Soleimani had “manipulated,” but said the U.S. homeland was not in jeopardy due to his imminent plan.

“It was the time to take this action so we could disrupt this plot, deter further aggression from Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian regime, as well as to attempt to de-escalate the situation,” Pompeo said. “The risk of doing nothing was enormous.”

Pompeo said the U.S. is braced for a variety of forms of retaliation from Iran, but stressed that Soleimani’s death would enhance safety in the region and elsewhere.

“The world is a much safer place, and I can assure you, American in the region are much safer after the demise of Qasem Soleimani,” Pompeo said.

Even so, the State Department issued an advisory instructing U.S. citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” and avoid the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, given the attack earlier this week from supporters of the Iran-backed Shiite militia.

Pompeo refrained from wading into the specifics, but said that the State Department believed the advisory was appropriate given the timing of recent events.

“Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration is focused on protecting Americans to the maximum extent feasible,” Pompeo said.

Tensions with Iran have escalated during the Trump administration. The Pentagon said Thursday that Soleimani was behind the series of attacks targeting coalition bases in Iraq since October, including the one on Dec. 27 at an Iraqi coalition base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. civilian contractor.

The contractor’s death prompted the U.S. to conduct five airstrikes on Sunday in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 fighters linked to Kataeb Hezbollah. The group is an Iran-backed militia in Iraq and part of the Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces.

Supporters of the Iran-backed militia attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday. In response, Joint Chiefs chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Thursday that any efforts to attack the U.S. Embassy would be analogous to running into a “buzzsaw.”

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also tweeted Thursday ahead of the strike targeting Soleimani that attacks against the U.S. would be met with “responses in the time, manner & place of our choosing.”

Lawmakers were divided following confirmation of Soleimani’s death. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who who served in the Army as an infantry officer and deployed to Iraq, said that the Iranian general “got what he richly deserved.”

Meanwhile, Democrats vocalized concern as they noted that there was no congressional approval granted for the strike.

Brett McGurk, the former special envoy to the counter-ISIS coalition at the State Department, said the strike was a “measure of justice,” but simultaneously noted the U.S. needed to act in order to counter potential consequences stemming from the strike.

“The news out of Iraq is a measure of justice done but with unknowable consequences,” McGurk, who stepped down from his State Department position in December 2018, tweeted Thursday evening. “We need to protect our people throughout the Middle East and presume a war posture. We must also reinforce our position in Iraq and maintain our coalition presence. Mitigate boomerang risks.”

Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed similar sentiments, but urged the U.S. to craft a definitive and precise strategy for how to proceed forward regarding Middle East engagement.

“Let’s be clear: Soleimani‘s death was an act of US self defence,” Rasmussen tweeted. “US, Europe and the free world must be vigilant for a retaliation/escalation. But we still lack a clear and strong Middle East engagement strategy from the US. They need one and fast.”

Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.

Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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