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US and Iran trade threats over reprisals for general’s killing

By Jennifer Jacobs and Nick Wadhams • Updated Jan 5, 2020 at 9:52 AM

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Iran traded threats after the killing of the Islamic Republic’s most prominent military man by an American drone, with Tehran promising a protracted response and Washington warning against reprisals.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the relatives of assassinated general Qassem Soleimani on Saturday that “they won’t see the effects of their mistake today, but they will witness it over many many years to come,” according to report by Iran’s state broadcaster. U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the Iranian regime should now start behaving like a “normal nation.”

Some effects were immediate, though. A wave of rocket attacks on Saturday targeted Baghdad’s Green Zone, which contains the U.S. Embassy, and the nearby Balad airbase that houses U.S. troops. The Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah warned Iraqi security forces at U.S. faculties in Iraq to stay away.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Twitter that the “end of U.S. malign presence in West Asia has begun.”

President Donald Trump said he approved the strike in Iraq because Soleimani was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks” against American diplomats and military personnel. Pompeo told Fox News on Friday night that the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force was planning an attack of such scale that it would have killed a “significant amount” of Americans as well as possibly Lebanese and Syrians. He said he wasn’t able to discuss details.

The U.S. is sending about 2,800 troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne division to join roughly 700 troops dispatched to Kuwait earlier this week as part of the division’s rapid-reaction “ready battalion,” according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing the deployment. The U.S. already had about 60,000 personnel in the region.

There is increasing concern that more nations will be drawn into a wider regional conflict as Iran threatens to avenge Soleimani, who led proxy militias that extended Iran’s power across the Middle East, by striking at U.S. interests and those of its allies.

The killing sent global markets reeling. Oil futures in London and New York at one point surged by more than 4%, gold hit the highest in four months and 10-year Treasury yields headed for the biggest drop in three weeks. The S&P 500 Index declined.

“We don’t seek war with Iran,” Pompeo said in an interview on Fox earlier on Friday. “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 de-escalate the situation.” The term “de-escalation” was used repeatedly by Pompeo to describe his discussions with counterparts in the Middle East.

O’Brien said the administration would provide Congress retroactive notification of the Soleimani strike as well as classified briefings next week, when lawmakers return from a holiday break.

An assistant Defense secretary and two other officials on Friday briefed staff from the House and Senate armed services committees on recent threats, the airstrike that killed Soleimani and the 11 attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement.

Soleimani was killed in a car late Thursday by a Reaper drone capable of firing laser-guided weapons as he was leaving a Baghdad airport access road, a U.S. official said. The strike also killed the deputy commander of an Iraqi militia group, the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces, who was with Soleimani.

The assault marked the latest in a series of violent episodes that have strained already hostile relations between Iran and the U.S. Last week, an American contractor was killed in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk. That led to a rare, direct American assault on an Iran-backed militia in Iraq and then came the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The pressures have been complicated by widespread protests in Iraq and Iran.

As protests continued in Tehran, Rouhani said the U.S. had committed malevolent acts against Iran for decades and referred to the coup that reinstated the Shah in 1953. “We won’t ever forget America’s crimes,” he said. “This is a saga that goes back years.”

Funerals of those killed got under way in Baghdad Saturday morning, with thousands attending, with many carrying militia banners. Separately, the PMF denied overnight reports that an attack on cars carrying some of its members north of Baghdad was another American airstrike.

The Iranian regime will be under “strong pressure” to strike back, said Paul Pillar, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington. “Many Iranians will regard this event the same way Americans would regard, say, the assassination of one of the best known and most admired U.S. military leaders.”

Zarif took Pompeo to task for a comment on Friday that Iraqis were “dancing in the street for freedom, thankful that General Soleimani is no more.”

“An arrogant clown — masquerading as a diplomat — claimed people were dancing in the cities of Iraq,” Zarif said on Twitter without naming Pompeo. “Today, hundreds of thousands of our proud Iraqi brothers and sisters offered him their response across their soil.”

Soleimani, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, was a household name in Iran where he’s celebrated for helping to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and countering U.S. influence.

He had been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2007 and last May Washington designated the Revolutionary Guards Corps in its entirety a foreign terrorist organization, the first time the label has been applied to an official state institution or a country’s security forces. Iran named Esmail Ghaani, another veteran of Middle East conflicts, as Soleimani’s replacement.

The Iranian leadership is signaling it may target U.S. military installations and bases in the Middle East and mobilize its network of militias across the region. One official told the state broadcaster that some 36 U.S. military bases and facilities are within reach of Iran’s defense forces, with the closest being in Bahrain.

A spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards said the assassination marked the start of a “new phase” in the activities of Iran’s “resistance forces” throughout the region.

A September attack on Saudi oil facilities — for which Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility — highlighted the potential impact of Tehran’s response.

Iraqi forces enhanced security around the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after the airstrike, Iraq’s al-Sumaria news reported, citing a security official.

Trump’s actions set off a lightning round of diplomatic phone-tag and meetings. European allies urged the president to find a way to ease the tensions with Tehran and warned of the risks that a cycle of retaliations would spiral out of control. French President Emmanuel Macron is speaking to his counterparts in the Middle East in an effort to contain tensions, European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin said on RTL radio.

“This is what we feared,” she said. “It’s a continuation of the escalation that’s been happening over recent months.”

In the Gulf, Qatar’s foreign minister headed to Tehran to speak with his Iranian counterpart to discuss the killing. The United Arab Emirates’ minister of state of foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, called for calm and a reasoned approach, bemoaning the lack of trust between the parties as the situation escalates.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had phone calls with Rouhani and Iraqi President Barham Salih to discuss developments. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone with Zarif and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

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(With assistance by Glen Carey, Anthony Capaccio, Kathleen Miller, Zaid Sabah and Jordan Fabian

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©2020 Bloomberg News

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