By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein
BAGHDAD, Jan 3 (Reuters) – Iran threatened on Friday to hit back hard after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.
Soleimani was a general who was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The overnight attack, authorised by President Donald Trump, marked a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack.
Iran has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.
Responding to the strike, Iraq’s prime minister said Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country. Israel put its army on high alert and Britain and France voiced concerns about an escalation.
The Pentagon said the “U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani” and that the strike was ordered by Trump to disrupt future Iranian attack plans.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he was killed in an attack by U.S. helicopters.
Concern about disruption to Middle East oil supplies pushed oil prices up nearly $3.
Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani. His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, he said.
In a statement carried by state television he called for three days of national mourning.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.]
‘HEROES NEVER DIE’
Soleimani led the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards, and had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Over two decades he had been at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad.
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.
President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make Iran more decisive in resisting the United States, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-U.S. forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.
Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Khamenei’s compound in central Tehran to convey their condolences.
“I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani. He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.
In Soleimani’s hometown, Kerman, people wearing black gathered in front of his father’s house, crying as they listened to a recitation of verses from the Koran.
“Heroes never die. It cannot be true. Qassem Soleimani will always be alive,” said Mohammad Reza Seraj, a high school teacher.
Trump, who is facing impeachment charges, made no immediate comment but posted a picture of the U.S. flag on Twitter.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and strong critic of the Republican president, said the attack was carried out without consultation with Congress and without authorisation for the use of military force against Iran.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as a violation of the conditions of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war.
Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called the killings a breach of sovereignty and international agreements. He urged all concerned parties to exercise restraint.
The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad condemned what it called criminal U.S. aggression.
Israel has long regarded Soleimani as a major threat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a trip to Greece and Israeli Army Radio said the military had gone on heightened alert.
The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias – battle-hardened militias armed with missiles – has ample means to respond.
In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil installations of Saudi state energy giant Saudi Aramco.
Iran, for its part, has absorbed scores of air strikes and missile attacks, mainly carried out by Israel against its fighters and proxies in Syria and Iraq.
Analysts say Iran is likely to respond forcefully to the targeting of Soleimani, who had survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.
The Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.
Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, after which he quietly strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.
Muhandis, who was killed with Soleimani, oversaw Iraq’s PMF, an alliance of paramilitary groups mostly comprising Iran-backed Shi’ite militias that was formally integrated into Iraqi armed forces.
His Kataib Hezbollah militia, which received battlefield training from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has long targeted U.S. forces and was one of the earliest groups to send fighters to Syria to support Assad.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Michael Georgy in Dubai, Maha El Dahan in Baghdad and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem Writing by Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mike Collett-White)