Tensions between the United States and Iran escalated on Friday after a US air raid killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or PMF.
The Pentagon confirmed the attack at Baghdad’s international airport, saying it came “at the direction of the president”
Soleimani and al-Muhandis’s deaths are a potential turning point in the Middle East and are expected to draw severe retaliation from Iran and the forces it backs in the region against Israel and US interests.
Here are all the latest updates amid the heightened tensions as of Friday, January 3:
Trump: Ordered killing of Iranian general to prevent war, not start one
President Donald Trump said he ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani to stop a war, not start one, saying the Iranian military commander was planning imminent attacks on Americans.
“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said, adding that the United States does not seek regime change in Iran.
3,000 additional US troops heading to Middle East: Officials
The US said it is sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East with defence officials saying the soldiers were from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said the troops were in addition to about 700 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne who deployed to Kuwait earlier this week after the storming of the US embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters.
UN chief: ‘World cannot afford’ another Gulf war
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the “world cannot afford” another Gulf war.
“The secretary-general has consistently advocated for de-escalation in the Gulf,” a spokesman for Guterres said in a statement.
“This is a moment in which leaders must exercise maximum restraint. The world cannot afford another war in the Gulf.”
Trump: Soleimani behind ‘thousands’ of US deaths, ‘hated’ by Iranians
US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to defend his decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, claiming that the Quds Force commander was behind the deaths of “millions of people”, including US citizens and his own Iranian compatriots.
Soleimani “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more,” Trump said.
“He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself,” he added
Iraqi parliament speaker condemns US air strike
Iraq’s Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi said in a statement: “Yesterday’s targeting of a military commander in Iraq’s armed forces near Baghdad international airport is a flagrant breach of sovereignty and violation of international agreements.”
“Iraq must avoid becoming a battlefield or a side in any regional or international conflict,” he said.
Al-Halbousi, who as speaker is Iraq’s top Sunni Arab politician, called on the government to take all steps needed to stop such attacks.
Dozens of US oil workers leaving Iraq
Dozens of US citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra were leaving the country on Friday, the oil ministry said.
The US embassy in Baghdad urged all its citizens to leave Iraq immediately.
Iraqi officials said the evacuation would not affect operations, production or exports.
‘US remains committed to de-escalation’: Pompeo
Washington is committed to “de-escalation” after a US air raid in Baghdad killed Soleimani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
Pompeo said on Twitter that he spoke to British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi about the US decision to eliminate Soleimani.
Soleimani’s body to be sent to Iran
Flags at Iranian embassies abroad were ordered to fly at half-mast and preparations were being made for Soleimani’s body to be transferred to Iran. The date for the funeral has yet to be announced.
Responding to the US’s killing of Soleimani, Iran’s National Security Council spokesman Keyvan Khosravi said: “The legal, political, security, and military consequences of this crime is on the US government.”
“The costs that Washington has to pay will be much more severe than the mirage-like achievements of this sort of blind moves,” he added.
Tens of thousands rally against ‘US crimes’
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Iran to protest against US “crimes”, after US raids killed Soleimani.
Chanting “Death to America” and holding up posters of the slain commander, the demonstrators filled streets for several blocks in central Tehran after Friday prayers.
State news agency IRNA reported similar demonstrations in the cities of Arak, Bojnourd, Hamedan, Hormozgan, Sanandaj, Semnan, Shiraz and Yazd.
Protesters in Tehran demonstrated against the killing of Qassem Soleimani [Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press]
Khamenei appoints Soleimani’s successor
Iran’s supreme leader appointed Esmail Qaani as the new head of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm.
“Following the martyrdom of the glorious general haj Qassem Soleimani, I name Brigadier General Esmail Qaani as the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement posted on his official website.
In Pictures: Iran’s Qassem Soleimani killed in US air raid
This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following the air strike in Baghdad [The Associated Press]