Top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani killed in U.S. Air Strike

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Baghdad (Reuters) – The United States killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force and spearhead of Iran’s spreading military influence in the Middle East, on Friday in an air strike at Baghdad airport, the Pentagon and Iran said.

Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack, a militia spokesman said.

The high-profile assassinations are likely to be a massive blow to Iran, which has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the US embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following a US air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” it added.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Soleimani had been killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he was killed in an attack by American helicopters.

Pictures showed burning debris on a road near the airport.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Soleimani’s assassination would strengthen resistance against the United States and Israel in the region and the world, Iranian state television reported

“The brutality and stupidity of American terrorist forces in assassinating Commander Soleimani … will undoubtedly make the tree of resistance in the region and the world more prosperous,” Zarif said in a statement.

Iranian state television presenters wore black and broadcast footage of Soleimani peering through binoculars across a desert and greeting a soldier, and of Muhandis speaking to followers.

Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias, blamed the United States and Israel for the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.

Iraqi paramilitary groups said on Friday that three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests”.

The rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, burning two vehicles, killing and injuring several people.