When President Donald Trump’s national security team went to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Monday, they weren’t expecting him to approve an operation to kill General Qassem Soleimani.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defence Secretary Mark Esper, and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had gone to Palm Beach, Florida, to brief Trump on airstrikes the Pentagon had just carried out in Iraq and Syria against Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia groups.
One briefing slide shown to Trump listed several follow-up steps the U.S. could take, among them targeting Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions who was not authorised to talk about the meeting on the record.
Unexpectedly, Trump chose that option, the official said, adding that the president’s decision was spurred on in part by Iran hawks among his advisers.
That meant the Pentagon suddenly faced the daunting task of carrying out Trump’s orders.
The first hint that further U.S. action was possible came only minutes after the end of the meeting with Trump.
“In our discussion today with the president, we discussed with him other options that are available.
“And I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary,” Esper told reporters.
Soleimani wasn’t mentioned publicly as a possible target.
But behind the scenes, Trump’s decision set off a furious effort by the Pentagon, CIA and others to locate the Iranian general and put in place military assets to kill him.
U.S. intelligence agencies, which had been tracking Soleimani for years, knew he was on an extended Middle East trip that had taken him to Lebanon and Syria.
They learned that he would be flying from Damascus to Baghdad within days.
He seemed unusually unconcerned about covering his tracks, officials noted.
He was traveling from Syria to Baghdad on a flight that was not secret, Iranian officials said on Friday, ostensibly for meetings with Iraqi officials.
But U.S. officials claimed on Friday that Soleimani’s trip had a more nefarious purpose: He was in the final stages of planning major attacks against U.S. facilities in several Middle East countries, they said.
“He was personally going to a few locations for final planning authority for what we assessed to be something big,” said the officials, who briefed reporters under ground rules that didn’t allow them to be identified.
The specific targets were unclear and officials declined to describe the evidence that backed up their assessment.
He had already been linked to a Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed an American military contractor near Kirkuk, Iraq.
In the days before Soleimani arrived in Baghdad, U.S. officials blamed him for orchestrating violent protests at the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.
A senior State Department official said new intelligence indicated Soleimani was plotting attacks on American diplomats, military personnel and facilities that house Americans in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
“There was consensus in the president’s national security Cabinet that the risk of doing nothing was unacceptable given the intelligence and given the effectiveness that Soleimani presents,” the official said.
When Soleimani arrived in Baghdad on Thursday, a U.S. drone and other military aircraft were circling near Baghdad International Airport.
Solaimani and several members of a pro-Iranian military got into two vehicles and were riding on the airport road toward downtown Baghdad when missiles fired from the drone struck.
Both vehicles were engulfed in flames.
According to Iraqi officials, rescuers identified Soleimani’s body among the casualties by the blood-red ring he always wore that was still attached to his ash-covered left hand. (tca/dpa/NAN)