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Iran’s leadership warned Friday that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the United States after top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was killed by the Pentagon in an airstrike. 

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed vengeance.

Khamenei said in a statement published by Iranian state media that the “cruelest people on earth” assassinated the “honorable” commander who “courageously fought for years against the evils and bandits of the world.”

Khamenei called for three days of mourning. 

“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” he added in the statement, published by the Fars News Agency. “But a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”

Soleimani was killed at Baghdad airport early Friday alongside members of Iran-backed militias operating in neighboring Iraq. The airstrike was ordered by President Donald Trump. Soleimani was killed while a convoy he was traveling in was leaving the airport. 

New escalation: U.S. launched airstrike that killed Iran’s Qasem Soleimani

The 62-year-old military commander played a key role in expanding Iran’s influence and military reach in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. His death marks a new, major escalation between Tehran and Washington following Trump’s withdrawal from a nuclear accord between Iran and world powers. Soleimani had a hand in virtually every major Iranian military and intelligence operation stretching back at least two decades, including a recent two-day siege against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that ended Wednesday. 

Soleimani was widely viewed as one of Iran’s most powerful men and a heroic national figure who was standing up to Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran that includes onerous economic sanctions. Soleimani headed Iran’s U.S.-sanctioned, elite Quds Force, part of the country’s hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called Soleimani’s killing a “heinous crime” and said “Iran will take revenge” while Ali Rabiei, a spokesman for Iran’s cabinet, said that Iran’s response would be severe and follow swiftly. 

The Pentagon defended the targeting of Soleimani as a defensive action, saying that Soleimani had “orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel.” 

Key figure: What we know about the strike that killed Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani

Sina Toossi, a researcher at the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-D.C.-based group that seeks to promote links between Americans and Iranians, noted on Twitter that Khamenei’s chairing Friday of an emergency meeting of the National Security Council for the first time was a “sign of how serious & authoritative #Iran’s response to Soleimani’s assassination will be.”

While it remains unclear what Iran’s response will be, the State Department urged U.S. citizens to leave Iraq “immediately,” citing “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region.” 

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