NEWS
03/01/2020 10:21 GMT | Updated 03/01/2020 11:29 GMT

Qassem Soleimani: What The Killing Of Iran's Top Military Commander Means

One of the country’s most senior military figures has been killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad.

If you have turned on the TV or radio or looked at your phone this morning, you probably already know about the death of Qassem Soleimani

You may have never heard about the Iranian military commander before today, but his death is big news. 

Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike at Baghdad Airport on Friday – an attack that was authorised by Donald Trump. It marks a significant escalation in hostilities between Iran and the US amid the countries’ long-standing conflict. 

The assassination has sparked reaction around the world and sent oil prices soaring.

Here's what you need to know.  

Who Was Qassem Soleimani? 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Qassem Soleimani (centre) at a graduation ceremony of a group of the guard's officers in Tehran

As head of the Quds Force – an elite unite of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – Soleimani was not only Iran’s most powerful military commander, but an architect of the country’s military influence in the Middle East. 

According to the BBC, he was seen as one of the most powerful figures in Iran, second only to the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

The 62-year-old became the head of the Quds Force in 1998, keeping a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

The force, which carried out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011.

The force also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq. 

The US Defense 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 also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

Soleimani had been rumoured dead several times, including in a 2006 plane crash that killed other military officials in north-western Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad.

Rumours circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.

How Did Soleimani Die? 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Photo released by the Iraqi prime minister's press office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike

Soleimani died in a US airstrike at Baghdad Airport in Iraq on Friday. 

Reuters reported that the rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, killing and injuring several people. Pictures showed burning debris on a road near the airport. 

According to Iraqi officials, top Iraqi military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – who was also an advisor to Soleimani – was among the dead. 

What Has Donald Trump Said About The Attack?

JIM WATSON via Getty Images
Donald Trump has yet to comment on the air strike 

The assassination of Soleimani marks a significant escalation in hostilities between Iran and the US. 

In a statement, the Pentagon said the US military had “taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani”. This was done “at the direction of the president”, it said. 

It added: “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.” 

However, despite authorising Soleimani’s assassination, Trump has so-far remained tight-lipped about the attack. 

Shortly after the news of the airstrike broke, the president tweeted a picture of the American flag

But some US Democrats are seriously unhappy about the airstrike.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden – who was Barack Obama’s vice president – accused Trump of having “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox”, saying it could leave the US “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East”.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders said: “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.”

How Has Iran Reacted? 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed harsh revenge over the assassination 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed harsh revenge over Soleimani’s assassination, calling those who killed him “criminals”. 

“All enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with a doubled motivation, and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war,” Khamenei said in a statement carried by state television.

He also called for three days of national mourning. 

Meanwhile, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make the country more decisive in its resistance to the US. 

Iran’s foreign minister called Soleimani’s assassination an “act of international terrorism”, saying the US “bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism”. 

What Have Politicians In The UK Said? 

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the UK had “always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qassem Soleimani”.

“Following his death,” Raab added, “we urge all parties to de-escalate.” 

Further conflict “is in none of our interests”, said the foreign secretary. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the assassination an “extremely serious and dangerous escalation of conflict with global significance”. 

“The UK government should urge restraint on the part of both Iran and the US, and stand up to the belligerent actions and rhetoric coming from the US.” 

Meanwhile, Labour MP Stella Creasy called for parliament to return early after the Christmas break, saying plans for MPs to return to Westminster on Tuesday were “unsustainable”. 

Neither Boris Johnson or the Foreign Office has responded to the attack so far.