The powerful Iranian general Qassem Suleimani has been killed in a drone strike in the Iraqi capital in the early hours of Friday, according to Iraqi state television and three senior officials in Baghdad.
If confirmed, the assassination will amount to an extraordinary escalation in a cold war between Tehran and Washington, which has largely been directed on the Iranian side by Suleimani – one of the most influential figures in the Middle East for more than a decade.
Also believed dead is the deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, a close ally of Suleimani and one of the main arms of Iranian aegis in Iraq.
But the Iranian general’s apparent death carries even more weight; he is the second most powerful person in Iran, behind the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and, through a mix of security operations and diplomatic coercion, has been more responsible than anyone else for projecting Iran’s influence in the region.
Two senior figure in the PMUs confirmed Suleimani had been assassinated. Neither immediately blamed the US. However, the Trump administration had vowed to retaliate against the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Day, which was led by Iranian proxies, in response to US airstrikes on their positions in the days earlier.
The escalation had followed a tit-for-tat series of strikes by both sides, which have been protagonists in Iraq since late 2006. Suleimani had been central to almost all that Iran did and was considered by senior officials under Barack Obama as being close to untouchable.
That siege followed US air strikes on camps run by a PMF-affiliated militia particularly closely aligned with Tehran, which in turn was a reprisal for that militia’s killing of a US contractor in an attack on an Iraqi army base on Friday.
The US has deployed 750 airborne troops to Kuwait as a rapid reaction force available for use in Iraq, and officials has said up to 3,000 could be sent in the coming days. The defence secretary, Mark Esper, said on Thursday that more militia attacks were expected and the US reserved the right to take preemptive action to stop them.
“There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks,” Esper said. “If we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives. The game has changed.”