Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was being driven to Baghdad’s international airport by local allies when the vehicle he was in was targeted by a missile.
Soleimani is considered one of the most powerful people in Iran and was once referred to by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution.”
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was travelling with Soleimani at the time and was also killed in the attack.
Video and photos from the scene show a decimated, burning vehicle on the side of a road leading to the airport with smoke billowing from the wreckage.
Soleimani’s body was torn to pieces in the attack, according to officials from the PMF, as reported by the Associated Press. His body was reportedly identified by the ring he often wore.
The body of al-Muhandis was not found.
The Pentagon said late Thursday that the U.S. military was responsible for the airstrike at the discretion of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Pentagon said the attack on Soleimani was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later said Trump’s decision to “remove Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives.”
Trump, who was vacationing at his estate in Florida at the time, did not immediately comment on the incident but later tweeted a photograph of an American flag.
He later tweeted that Soleimani “should have been taken out many years ago.”
The attack is being considered a dramatic escalation in long-standing tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
Tehran is vowing revenge. Iranian leaders have warned there would be “harsh retaliation” for the killings.
“America’s action without any doubt is an act of state terrorism,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters