As the American national security establishment waits anxiously to see how Iran will react to the drone killing of one of their top generals, President Trump told reporters that the strike was not meant to spark a war between the two countries.
“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,” he said in a press conference at his Florida resort, taking no questions before boarding a flight to a campaign rally. “Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and American military personnel, but we caught him in the act, and terminated him.”
Local militia groups had been doing Soleimani’s bidding for two decades, Trump added, further destabilizing the Middle East. A U.S. State Department report estimated that the IRGC was responsible for 17 percent of all deaths of U.S. personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 — roughly 603 casualties.
Soleimani also masterminded the torture and murder of over 1,000 civilians in Iran during recent anti-government protests.
“Soleimani made the death of innocent people his sick passion, contributing to terrorist plots as far away as New Delhi and London,” Trump said. “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.”
The president also nodded to past intelligence reports on Soleimani, arguing that lives would have been saved if the U.S. had seized the opportunity to assassinate the general sooner.
“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said. “We did not take action to start a war.”
Now, preparations are underway for Iran’s response.
“Iran has two choices here,” National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien told reporters in a press call Friday evening. “It has two roads to go down. One is further escalation. And pursuing that path will lead to no where for the Iranian people and for the regime.”
As the U.S. beefs up its Middle East presence in preparation for a counter-attack, the Iraqi government has raised the question of whether it will continue to allow troops to operate within the country at all.
A senior Defense official told reporters Friday that the U.S. is closely monitoring threats against any location where troops are stationed in the Middle East in anticipation of a violent response from Iran. In addition to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, the U.S. has bases in several nations in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. All are within the range of Iranian missiles.
“We are of course prepared to defend ourselves against further attacks and respond if so ordered,” the official said.
On Friday, the Army announced that thousands more soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division would join several hundred who have already deployed to to Kuwait as part of their Immediate Response Force duties.
One battalion left earlier this week as back-up during protests outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Their mission will be a joint one, according to a document provided to Military Times, with air assets, cyber capability and logistical support for the 82nd’s paratroopers who are trained in airborne assaults into denied environments.
“Is there risk? Damn right there’s risk,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Friday, according to Reuters. “But we’re mitigating, and we think we’re taking appropriate mitigations.”
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government condemned the attack, viewing it as a violation of their sovereignty, and vowed to re-evaluate its cooperation with U.S. troops, who have been working with Iraqi forces in the counter-ISIS campaign.
“We’re aware of the meeting that’s scheduled for tomorrow,” O’Brien said. “We’d certainly be very disappointed if there was some sort of adverse decision by the Iraqi parliament ... with respect to our continued ability to assist the people of Iraq.”
Was it an assassination?
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mike Jones, who served as U.S. Central Command chief of staff in 2011 under then-commander James Mattis, told Military Times on Friday that the U.S. has long had Soleimani in its sights and likely could have been taken out in the past if so desired.
“The U.S. military and other allies have known Soleimani’s whereabouts periodically over the years,” said Jones, who retired in 2012 after a 34-year career. “He takes the normal security precautions that any senior leader would take in terms travel plans and all that kind of stuff. Nevertheless, we have known his whereabouts from time to time. Had we desired to do something, we probably could have.”
The strikes were legally sound if they were in fact done to protect U.S. personnel from an imminent threat, Jones said. He noted that he is hopeful that the administration will elaborate on that threat in the coming weeks.
White House and Pentagon officials declined to discuss which legal authority they leaned on to carry out the strike, nor would they offer any details about the “imminent threat” U.S. personnel faced from Soleimani’s organization.
“You don’t do strikes based on revenge,” Jones said. “We do it based on an understanding that we have a right to protect ourselves based on the Law of Armed Conflict, and we can preemptively take action to do that when we have confirmed information that there’s a threat and if by taking that action we can deter or interrupt that threat."
A 1976 executive order prohibits U.S. government officials from "participating in, or conspiring to conduct an assassination.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi described it as such.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the assassination by US forces of Iraqi and Iranian figures who were symbols of the victory against Daesh,” Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement posted to Twitter.
“The assassinations violate the conditions governing the presence of US forces in Iraq whose role is to train Iraqi forces and assist in the fight against Daesh as part of the Global Coalition, subject to the supervision and approval of the” Iraqi government, he added.
In response, Iranian leaders threatened “the dead bodies of Americans all over the Middle East."
Pentagon officials briefed lawmakers on Friday in the aftermath of the strike, but several Democrats have come out and said they haven’t seen enough information to show that Soleimani’s killing was imminently necessary, adding that they should have been looped in ahead of time.
“Briefers also emphasized that we do not seek escalation with Iran, and have taken appropriate measures to ensure the safety and security of U.S. citizens, forces, partners and interests in the region," Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said in a statement.
Officially, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 gives the president two full days to notify Congress of military action, and puts a 60-limit on continued operations before Congress must issue a use-of-force authorization.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, however, that regulation has seen some broad interpretations. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, issued Sept. 18, 2001, for instance covered operations against those involved in the 9/11 attacks and “associated forces,” and has been cited as justification for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now against ISIS.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT
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.
Kyle Rempfer is 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 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer