Thousands of Iranians take to the streets as they mourn the death of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani on Friday. Photo by Maryam Rahmanian/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 3 (UPI) -- The Pentagon is sending up to 3,500 additional troops to the Middle East as tensions rise following the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike, U.S. military officials said Friday.
CNN and NBC News, citing unnamed Defense Department sources, each reported thousands of new troops were heading to Iraq, Kuwait and other parts of the region, and will come from the Immediate Response Force of the 82nd Airborne Division.
U.S. officials told NBC, however, that the additional troops were not a direct response to Soleimani's death, which has triggered a furious reaction from Iran and its allies inside Iraq. Rather, they said, it's a continuation of an earlier announcement this week to send troops to the region.
President Donald Trump defended the airstrike Friday, saying Soleimani was planning "imminent and sinister attacks."
Speaking to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump said the United States does not seek regime change.
"We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war," he said.
Later Friday, at a Miami rally to launch an Evangelicals for Trump coalition, Trump said Soleimani's "bloody rampage is now forever gone."
"We do not seek war, we do not seek nation-building, we do not seek regime change," Trump told the crowd.
The Pentagon announced the death of Soleimani in a statement released late Thursday in Washington. The U.S. military accused him of developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in the Middle East and held him and the military force he oversaw responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.
They also accused Soleimani of approving the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and orchestrating the Dec. 27 attack on a northern Iraqi military base in which a U.S. contractor was killed.
Those claims were reiterated in a news release posted Friday afternoon using quotes from an unnamed senior Defense Department official who, according to the Pentagon, spoke to reporters earlier Friday.
"We have been very clear with Iran and our Iraqi partners that these increasing attacks need to stop and that we would hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to U.S. personnel," the official said.
In a statement sent to UPI Friday, Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said Katie Wheelbarger, acting assistant to the secretary of defense for international security affairs, along with senior representatives from the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, briefed members of the House Armed Service Committee and Senate Armed Service Committee Friday on 11 recent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq since October and "recent decisive defensive actions" in response.
Those included the strikes against Iran-backed Kata'ib Hizballah as well as the elimination of Soleimani.
"These strikes offer the regime in Iran an opportunity to turn from its terrorist past and cease its unlawful, aggressive escalatory attacks," Farah said.
According to Farah, briefers stressed that they "do not seek escalation with Iran" and have taken appropriate measures to assure the safety of Americans and allies in the region.
Soleimani, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the second-in-command of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, and several others were killed in the attack, Iranian state-run Press TV reported.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard said U.S. helicopters targeted vehicles near Baghdad International Airport, although subsequent reports have indicated a drone was used.
The strike prompted Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to vow his country would retaliate for the U.S. action.
"Harsh revenge awaits the criminals who have the blood of [Soleimani] and other martyrs of last night's incident on their hands," he said in a statement, the semiofficial Tasnim News Agency reported.
In a quickly escalating situation, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Friday urged all American citizens to "depart Iraq immediately," saying they should leave by airline while possible, but failing that, to go to other countries via land.
"Due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all public consular operations are suspended until further notice," it said.
Following news of Soleimani's death, Trump tweeted a picture of the American flag, while tens of thousands of people rallied on the streets of Iranian capital Tehran.
Later Friday, he posted another tweet saying the Iranian commander "was plotting to kill many more" Americans and he "should have been taken out many years ago." A third tweet stated, "Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!"
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the airstrike Friday after returning early from a visit to Greece, saying, "Just as Israel has the right of self-defense, the United States has exactly the same right. Qassem Soleimani is responsible for the death of American citizens and many other innocent people. He was planning more such attacks."
The attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned Iran that continued attacks against U.S. forces would be met with a military response.
"To Iran and its proxy militias: We will not accept continued attacks against our personnel and forces in the region," Esper said in a statement. "Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner and place of our choosing. We urge the Iranian regime to end their malign activities."
He later told reporters that the United States is prepared "to exercise self-defense, and we are prepared to deter further bad behavior from these groups, all of which are sponsored and directed and resourced by Iran."
For two days, rioters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, retreating after U.S. troops fired tear gas to disperse them. In response, the Pentagon has deployed about 750 additional troops to the Middle East.
Esper told reporters Thursday that U.S. facilities will be strengthened by troops to protect personnel.
"And, obviously, they have the capability to perform other missions, as well, as need be," he said.
The attack on the embassy was in response to the United States conducting airstrikes late December on locations that belong to the Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary group Kata'ib Hezbollah, during which at least 25 people were killed and 51 injured.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Friday he was preparing a briefing for senators on the Iraq airstrike, urging them not to judge the events until then.
The president's move, he said, "may prove controversial or divisive," but added, "I anticipate and welcome a debate about America's interest in foreign policy in the Middle East."
Candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination ripped Trump's decision to unleash the airstrike.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said that while "no American will mourn" Soleimani's death, Trump "just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox" that would prompt rather than deter future Iranian attacks on U.S. interests.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called the move "reckless," predicting it would escalate the situation with Iran and increase "the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., meanwhile, said a conflict in the Middle East "could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars."
The killing of Soleimani will "negatively affect" global security, Russia said, while Iraq's top lawmaker called the action a violation of his country's sovereignty.
A statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry called Soleimani, commander of Iran's elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Quds Force, one the strongest actors in the fight against jihadist terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida.
The Russian ministry said his death in an airstrike ordered by Trump was ill-advised.
"The short-sighted steps by the U.S., namely the killing of General Soleimani, will lead to a sharp escalation of military-political tensions in the Middle East region," the ministry said. "It is fraught with serious negative consequences for the entire global security system."
Condemnation also was swift among Iraqi lawmakers who said the airstrikes violated Iraq's sovereignty agreements with the United States.
Iraq Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi said the killings of Soleimani and al-Muhandis were "a flagrant violation of sovereignty and a violation of international conventions."
"Any security and military operation on Iraqi territory must have the approval of the government," he said in a statement. "We also call on the government in this sensitive circumstance to take the necessary political, legal and security measures to stop such attacks."