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Soleimani (center). Photo: Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

One of the Iranian regime's most powerful figures has been killed in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad's international airport, the Pentagon has confirmed.

Why it matters: Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was as revered by Iran's proxies and supporters across the region as he was reviled by Iran's foes, who considered him the mastermind of state-sponsored terrorism.

"At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani."
— Pentagon statement

The big picture: Soleimani was often referred to as Iran's second most powerful person, behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Tehran can be expected to respond forcefully to his assassination, and the already tense U.S.-Iran standoff will instantly become far more dangerous — including for U.S. forces in the region.

What they're saying:

"General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. ... General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week."
— Pentagon statement
"Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question. The question is this — as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?"
— Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
"The defensive actions the U.S. has taken against Iran & its proxies are consistent with clear warnings they have received. They chose to ignore these warnings because they believed [Trump] was constrained from acting by our domestic political divisions. They badly miscalculated."
— Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla)
"The consequences of killing Soleimani are hard to grasp; this is the biggest news in the Middle East for years. For starters, the US will have to leave Syria soon & the Iraq presence is likely on its way out too."
— Charles Lister, Middle East Institute

Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies tells Axios this is "one of the most significant security events in modern Middle Eastern history."

  • "While Soleimani has institutionalized at least some of his war-fighting aptitudes within the [IRGC], what isn’t institutionalized is his name-brand and charisma," he adds.

Mahdi al-Muhandis, founder of the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah, was also reported dead. Kataib Hezbollah responded to deadly airstrikes by the U.S. on Sunday with two days of violent protests outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

  • Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday that there were indications that Iran or its proxies may be planning additional attacks, and that the U.S. was prepared to take preemptive action.
  • “The game has changed,” he said. “And we’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region.”

President Trump threatened to retaliate after the chaotic scenes at the embassy, but has also said he doesn’t want war.

  • He previously cancelled airstrikes on Iran at the last minute after the downing of a U.S. drone in June, concerned by the prospect of escalation. There are few steps that could have guaranteed swifter retaliation than the assassination of Soleimani.

Oil prices were up roughly 3% within hours of the attack.

  • Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, predicted via Twitter that Iran's response "certainly may include escalating attacks on energy infrastructure."
  • He said the major September aerial strikes against Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, which the U.S. blamed on Iran, were "just the beginning."

Flashback: The U.S. designated the IRGC as a terrorist group last April, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time that Soleimani would be treated by the U.S. as a terrorist leader — on par with then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Go deeper: A 2013 profile of Soleimani from the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins.

Go deeper

18 mins ago - Health

Meta removes over 600 accounts linked to COVID disinformation effort by China

Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Meta announced Wednesday it has removed over 600 Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to a Chinese influence operation that claimed the U.S. was pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to blame COVID on China.

Why it matters: Though Meta said the network was unsuccessful, it marks yet another COVID disinformation campaign instigated by China in an effort to discredit the U.S.

Stacey Abrams launches second campaign for Georgia governor

Photo: Eze Amos/Getty Images

Stacey Abrams, voting rights activist and former 2018 candidate for Georgia governor, is running for the position again in 2022. Abrams would be the first Black female governor in the country.

Why it matters: Abrams caught national attention in 2018 by narrowly losing an election to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in a state held firmly by the GOP for nearly two decades.

First known U.S. case of Omicron variant identified in California

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on Dec. 1. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The first known U.S. case of the Omicron variant was detected in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Wednesday.

Driving the news: The confirmed case was detected in a traveler returning from South Africa who was fully vaccinated and has mild symptoms, according to the CDC.