U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday fiercely defended the killing of Qassem Soleimani by American forces, as the death of the top Iranian military commander plunged the United States deeper into unknown territory with a notorious geopolitical foe.
“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself.”
The president’s message came hours after the Defense Department confirmed in a statement Thursday evening that Trump had directed the strike against Soleimani, which the Pentagon described as a “defensive action” that was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”
The unexpected killing of the leader of Iran’s elite Quds force represents one of Trump’s boldest military maneuvers while in office, and marks perhaps the most serious escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran since the president withdrew from the multinational nuclear pact with Iran in 2018.
The general’s death in the opening days of a presidential election year is also likely to elevate the issue of American foreign policy in the Middle East as Trump wages a competitive campaign for a second term in the White House.
“The president’s been pretty clear. We don’t seek war with Iran” — Mike Pompeo
“While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country,” Trump tweeted. “They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!”
Earlier in the morning, the president wrote online that “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the hosts of “Fox & Friends” that even though Trump does not “seek war” with Iran, the administration will “respond appropriately” if Tehran does not move to de-escalate tensions with the United States.
“The president’s been pretty clear. We don’t seek war with Iran,” Pompeo said.
“But we, at the same time, are not going to stand by and watch the Iranians escalate and continue to put American lives at risk without responding in a way that disrupts, defends, deters and creates an opportunity to deescalate the situation,” he said.
Although officials in Tehran have vowed revenge against the U.S. for Soleimani’s death, Pompeo said Friday that he hopes Iran’s “decision will be to deescalate” rather than pursue a course of retaliation.
“In the event that they do not, in the event they go the other direction, I know that President Trump and the entire United States government is prepared to respond appropriately,” he said.
Pompeo on Friday morning also participated in several phone calls with senior foreign diplomats, including those from China, Germany and the United Kingdom, regarding Trump’s decision to eliminate Soleimani “in response to imminent threats to American lives,” according to State Department readouts of the conversations.
The secretary largely declined to detail the nature of those “imminent threats” in a separate interview with CNN, but insisted the president’s call “to remove Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There’s no doubt about that.”
Soleimani “was actively plotting in the region to take actions — big action, as he described it — that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk,” Pompeo said, adding that “last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack, that he was working actively, was disrupted.”
Pompeo did acknowledge that the threats removed by Soleimani’s death were “located in the region” as opposed to the U.S. homeland, and said the intelligence community had assessed that “the risk of doing nothing was enormous.”
Pompeo similarly declined to elaborate on a State Department advisory issued early Friday urging American citizens to “depart Iraq immediately.”
Iraqi and other media have reported that Soleimani died in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport, and Trump earlier this week blamed Iran for a breach of the U.S. embassy compound in the Iraqi capital.
“Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration is focused on protecting Americans to the maximum extent feasible,” Pompeo said. “We made the conclusion that a statement that we issued was appropriate, that the timing was right for that.”
Trump drew Iraq further into the rapidly intensifying conflict between the U.S. and Iran in a pair of tweets later Friday morning.
“The United States has paid Iraq Billions of Dollars a year, for many years. That is on top of all else we have done for them,” the president wrote. “The people of Iraq don’t want to be dominated & controlled by Iran, but ultimately, that is their choice. Over the last 15 years, Iran has gained more and more control over Iraq, and the people of Iraq are not happy with that. It will never end well!”
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