WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said Friday that he ordered the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani because he was “plotting to kill” many Americans.
In his first comments since the strike against the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force early Friday, Trump said Soleimani was also responsible for killing and wounding “thousands” of Americans and many more in the region.
“He should have been taken out many years ago,” Trump tweeted from his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was vacationing.
The strike marked a major escalation in the conflict between Washington and Iran, as Iran vowed “harsh retaliation” for the killing of the senior military leader. The two nations have faced repeated crises since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
The United States urged its citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” as fears mounted that the strike and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the region.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the strike as “wholly lawful,” saying that Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat against the U.S. and its interests in the region.
“There was an imminent attack,” Pompeo told Fox News. “The orchestrator, the primary motivator for the attack, was Qassem Soleimani.”
The White House did not inform lawmakers before the strike. It was expected to give classified briefings to members of Congress and staff in the afternoon. Defense Secretary Mark Esper notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the strike shortly before the Pentagon confirmed it publicly.
Pompeo called world leaders Friday to explain and defend Trump’s decision to order the airstrike that has sparked fears of an explosion of anti-American protests as well as more violence in the already unstable Middle East.
The State Department said Pompeo had spoken Friday with top officials in Afghanistan, Britain, China, France, Germany and Pakistan.
In his calls with the British and German foreign ministers as well as China’s state councilor, Pompeo stressed that Trump acted to counter an imminent threat to U.S. lives in the region but also that the U.S. is committed to “de-escalation” of tensions, according to the department’s summaries of the conversations.
De-escalation was not mentioned in the department’s summary of his call with the French foreign minister, nor in his calls with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani or the Pakistani military chief of staff. In those calls Pompeo “underscored the Iranian regime’s destabilizing actions through the region and the Trump Administration’s resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities and partners,” the department said.
Trump opted not to play a round of golf on Friday, and he was not expected to be seen publicly until he travels to Miami for an afternoon event for his reelection campaign.