US say airstrike thwarted Iranian "impending attack"

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(Bloomberg) – Donald Trump ordered a U.S. airstrike that killed one of Iran's most powerful generals and shook global markets when the president said the military leader was planning attacks on Americans.

"General Qassem Soleimani has killed or seriously wounded thousands of Americans over a long period of time and was planning to kill many more … but was caught!" Trump tweeted on Friday. "He should have been released many years ago!" He added.

State Secretary Michael Pompeo said Friday the strike was in response to the threat of an "impending attack". He will not provide details of the threat other than saying that it is limited to the Middle East and that US intelligence warrants the airstrike.

In response, Iran's Supreme Leader quickly threatened "severe retribution." The U.S. State Department has issued a directive urging American citizens to leave Iraq immediately because of the tensions.

Oil futures in London and New York rose more than 4%, gold was at its highest level in four months, yields on 10-year Treasury bills were at their largest drop in three weeks, and stock and US stock futures gave way.

Soleimani, who led deputy militias that expanded Iran's power in the Middle East, was killed in a Trump-authorized strike in Baghdad, the Department of Defense said in a statement late Thursday. Trump, who lives at the Mar-a-Lago Resort in Florida, said on Twitter on Friday that "Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!", And the US embassy in Baghdad urged its citizens to to leave the country.

"We are not looking for war with Iran," said Pompeo in an interview with Fox on Friday morning. “At the same time, however, we will not see how the Iranians escalate and continue to endanger the lives of the Americans without reacting in a way that disrupts, defends, discourages and creates an opportunity for de-escalation. "

"At the President's instruction, the US military has taken determined countermeasures to protect US personnel abroad by killing them," the Pentagon said. "General Soleimani actively developed plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and across the region."

Pompeo said the decision to strike was based on intelligence gathering and the attack "saved American lives".

The death of Soleimani, who led the Quds of the Revolutionary Guard, fueled fears that the US and Iran could be involved in an armed confrontation that could easily strike other countries. The growing pressure for months has been compounded by widespread protests in Iraq and Iran.

"Qassem Soleimani embodied Iran's extraterritorial activism in the Middle East," said Asif Shuja, a senior researcher at the Singapore Middle East Institute. "His assassination is therefore a turning point."

All leading Iranian politicians condemned the attack and vowed to strike back, while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif denounced the murder on Twitter as an "act of international terrorism". Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will attend an emergency session of Iran's Supreme National Security Council for the first time, the state-run newspaper Hamshahri reported. He vowed to avenge Soleimani's killing.

"Severe retribution awaits murderers who have the blood of Soleimani and other martyrs from last night's incident on their evil hands," said Khamenei in a statement.

The Iranian leadership signals that it is likely to target US military facilities and bases in the Middle East and to mobilize its network of militias across the region. An official told the state broadcaster that about 36 US military bases and facilities are within range for the Iranian armed forces, with the closest being in Bahrain. A spokesman for the Revolutionary Guard said the murder marked the beginning of a "new phase" for Iran's "resistance" activities across the region.

An attack on Saudi oil factories in September, for which Iranian-supported rebels in Yemen were responsible, highlighted the potential impact of Tehran's response.

Trump's European allies called on the President to find a way to alleviate tensions with Tehran and warned him of the risk of a retaliation cycle getting out of control.

French President Emmanuel Macron is speaking to his counterparts in the Middle East to prevent the situation from getting out of control, European Minister Amelie de Montchalin said on RTL radio. "We feared that," she said. "It is a continuation of the escalation that has taken place in the past few months."

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said that the United States had been provoked by Iran and called on all sides to reduce tensions.

According to a U.S. official, Soleimani was hit in a U.S. drone attack near Baghdad International Airport. Details remained unclear, but a person familiar with the developments said an Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, had also been killed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi's office said the attack was "aggression against the Iraqi state, Iraqi government and Iraqi people" and called for an extraordinary session of the parliament.

The Iranian regime will be under "strong pressure" to fight back, said Paul Pillar, a former official of the United States Central Intelligence Agency and a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington. "Many Iranians will look at this event as much as Americans, for example, the murder of one of the best known and most admired US military leaders."

Iraqi troops strengthened security near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after the airstrike, Iraqi al-Sumaria news said, citing a security guard. Iran has called the Swiss envoy to Tehran, who, according to State Department spokesman Abbas Mousavi, is assisting in the protection of the United States' interests in the country.

Soleimani, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, was a household name in Iran, where he was celebrated for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and countering the influence of the United States.

He has been sanctioned by the United States since 2007 and was appointed Revolutionary Guard Corps by Washington in May last year as a foreign terrorist organization. It was the first time that the seal was affixed to an official government agency or a country's security forces.

The attack in Baghdad was the last in a series of violent incidents that have weighed on hostile relations between Iran and the United States. An American contractor was killed last week in a missile attack on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk. This led to a rare, direct American attack on an Iran-backed militia in Iraq and then an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.

– With the support of Glen Carey, Tony Capaccio, Sam Potter and Kathleen Miller.

To contact the reporters of this story: Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at jjacobs68@bloomberg.net, Zaid Sabah in Washington at zalhamid@bloomberg.net, Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

How to contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Shepard at mshepard7@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert, Elizabeth Wasserman

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