News Brief: Iran's Top General Killed In Trump-Ordered Strike

Jan 3, 2020
Originally published on January 3, 2020 10:41 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Looking back on it now, we can see there was a warning of the airstrike that hit Baghdad overnight.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. Secretary of Defense delivered that warning yesterday. Mark Esper spoke to reporters about violent events in Iraq. Iraq is a battleground in the struggle for influence between the United States and Iran. And Esper said Iran was behind attacks on U.S. interests there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ESPER: There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks. That's nothing new, right? We've seen this for two, three months now. So if that happens, then we will act. And by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type of indication, we will take preemptive action, as well, to protect American forces, to protect American lives.

INSKEEP: You heard the phrase there - preemptive action, meaning the U.S. was willing to strike before Iran could carry off an attack. And that is how the U.S. Defense Department now describes what the U.S. did in Baghdad. Iranian General Qassem Soleimani arrived at the Baghdad airport. He'd been in Iraq many times before. He commanded Quds Force, which conducts operations outside Iran, including Iraq. But as he started into town this time, a U.S. drone was overhead.

KING: What happened next? Many NPR reporters are covering this story. National security correspondent Greg Myre is with us in the studio. International correspondent Deb Amos is in Beirut. And White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is on the line from D.C. Good morning to all of you.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Greg Myre, let's start with you. What did the U.S. drone do?

MYRE: Right. So this is the early hours of Friday before dawn. And Soleimani apparently got in one of two cars. And the drone hit these cars, killing Soleimani and, apparently, a couple other people who were meeting him at the airport. It seems he was just departing from the airport. A major dramatic development - one of the most important figures in the Middle East.

KING: Who was this man?

MYRE: Qassem Soleimani was a military man his entire life. He was 62 years old. And he led the Quds Force. A rough analogy is sort of, like, the U.S. Special Forces. So he was the leader of Iranian forces that were operating throughout the region in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon. And for American purposes, he - his force, the Quds Force, was considered to have killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq over the past - what? - 16 years or so that the U.S. has been fighting there.

KING: OK. So he was a critical figure. Iran this morning is promising retaliation. It's worth noting that several different voices at this point are speaking for Iran, from Iran. Who's saying what?

MYRE: Right. So, you know, we've got everybody from the - I believe the supreme leader promising serious revenge, serious retaliation. We have the foreign minister calling this terrorism by the United States. So we're getting very strong reaction from Iran. And they have multiple ways they could strike back, from going after oil tankers in the Middle East to U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere.

KING: OK. And who else was killed in this strike?

MYRE: Right. So one of the other figures that was killed is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Now, he's an Iraqi. And he led these militia forces that were working with Iran. And it seems he had gone to the airport to meet Qassem Soleimani. And his group was involved in these rocket attacks that killed a U.S. contractor a week ago and then were hit by U.S. airstrikes and then have been protesting outside the U.S. embassy. So he's also a key figure and had been working very close with Qassem Soleimani.

KING: OK.

INSKEEP: We hear something in Greg's statement there of Iran's rhetoric when they use the word terrorism. The U.S. uses the word terrorism about Iran. Iran is happy to turn that back and say, you say we're the terrorists. We say you're the terrorists. And here's a reality that the U.S. has to consider as it watches for possible Iranian retaliation. Iran has an archipelago of allies, which stretch throughout Iran's region from Yemen in the east to Iraq in the middle and all the way over to Gaza and Lebanon, which border Israel. And NPR's Deborah Amos is in Beirut, Lebanon, watching all this. Hi there, Deborah.

AMOS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are Iranians saying, first of all?

AMOS: Oh, it is remarkable as people are absorbing the loss. You know, some have called Soleimani Iran's indispensable man. He was a military man his whole life, a strategic thinker. And most recently, he's been balancing military campaigns in Syria and Iraq. He was head of the Quds Force for decades. And that's a combination of, like, the CIA and Special Forces. And his death has been a shock, as we hear from a political science professor Hamed Mousavi. We reached him this morning at the University of Tehran. He said Iranians are used to the proxy war that's been going on between the U.S. and Iran for decades. But this escalation is new, and it's unexpected.

HAMED MOUSAVI: I think many Iranians were surprised. Killing a top Iranian official and doing it so publicly, essentially assassinating him, is a very major escalation of hostilities. It would be akin to Iran assassinating the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Essentially, it's an act of war.

AMOS: Soleimani was a cult figure in Iran. He was one of the most popular figures in the country. And Mousavi, the political science professor, cited an American poll that shows that he had the highest approval rating of any public figure, much higher than even the Iranian president.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's talk about that archipelago of allies. What are some of Iran's friends, including major powers, saying and doing?

AMOS: So the Russians condemned it as reckless - not a surprise. The Syrian reaction has been particularly harsh. Soleimani played a big role in the military operation that propped up Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. In Iraq, that's been where the reaction has been the most interesting. The official reaction has been measured. Essentially, it is a pray for the country because Iraq is a likely place where we could see escalation. This is a place where Iranian forces and U.S. forces have some proximity. There's also another interesting detail. There's been three months of street protests. And many of those Iraqi protesters have been against Soleimani and Iran, who they say has been backing this strategy to crush their movement. So you can see media in the Middle East have been playing clips of those protesters, saying that they are glad that he's dead.

KING: All right. I want to bring in NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Ayesha, this, of course, happened overnight. So we essentially woke up to this news? President Trump, we know, ordered the strike. What have we heard from him and from inside of the White House?

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: So not much at this point. Really, the only official response has come from the Defense Department. But President Trump - he did tweet this picture of an American flag. And that's really the only reference that he has made - we think that he's making it - to what happened with Soleimani. So far, nothing else on the Twitter feed, which is the way President Trump will normally respond to these things. But we'll have to see if they have more to say today.

KING: A picture of the American flag and no words with it, which was really interesting. Although it's early, lawmakers in Congress - some of them anyhow - are responding. What are they saying?

RASCOE: Well, so like with so many instances these days, the reaction is really playing out along party lines. Republicans so far are mostly standing with the president and his decision. Senator Tom Cotton said that Soleimani got what he, quote, "richly deserved" and that America is safer now that he's gone. They're saying that this is a man that was a threat to the U.S. and that he was dangerous. And Democrats are not disagreeing with that idea, really, but they are also saying that this was a very serious action. And they're asking for an explanation about this decision. Senator Richard Blumenthal said that taking this step could bring on the most consequential military confrontation in decades.

And what Democrats are saying is that this doesn't end here and that the U.S. needs to be prepared for retaliation from Iran and its proxies. There's also some legal questions. The House Foreign Affairs chair, Eliot Engel, said this strike went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress and that Congress has not authorized war with Iran. So there's real uncertainty about where the U.S. goes from here and what types of plans the Trump administration has in place to deal with the repercussions.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's circle back to Greg Myre here because, Greg, we've heard the phrase that Qassem Soleimani, perhaps a new name to some Americans - but you said he was a cult figure inside Iran. Let's dwell on why he would be because you've covered this region for many, many years, this period of history back to 1979, when Iran has been active throughout the Middle East. What was Soleimani? Was he the face of Iran's wider ambitions for the region and the world?

MYRE: Yeah. I mean, you may have heard a lot about the sort of Shia Crescent, Iran trying to expand its presence and influence across the region ever since the '79 revolution. And Soleimani really was not the architect but also the operational leader. He was the guy who went to Iraq to deal with the militias there. He went to Syria to deal with Bashar Assad, the president. He worked with Hezbollah in Lebanon. So more than any other single figure, he was the face of this Iranian expansion throughout the region.

INSKEEP: And so everything that made him a dark figure to the United States makes him a symbolically powerful figure for Iran.

MYRE: That's right. He held this - he didn't often say a lot, but he just had this presence about him. He would pop up on the battlefield. He would pop up in Moscow. He would pop up often in military fatigues. And you knew he was an important person doing serious business.

INSKEEP: Now and again over the years, even working with the United States or alongside the United States.

MYRE: That's also true.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks very much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre. We also heard from NPR's Ayesha Rascoe and NPR's Deborah Amos on the death of Qassem Soleimani - killed in a U.S. drone strike at the Baghdad airport in Iraq overnight.

KING: And we want to note that this is a developing story. If you want the latest news, you should tune into your NPR station or visit us online at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.