The U.S. military claimed responsibility Thursday night for an airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian military’s elite Quds force, at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani,” the Pentagon said in a statement, asserting that Gen. Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the statement said. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”

The U.S. claimed responsibility after Iraqi news outlets reported that Gen. Soleimani, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, had both been killed in the airstrike in Baghdad.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggested during a news conference earlier that preemptive American military action against Iran and its proxies may be imminent.

The developments underscore escalating tension between the U.S. and Iran. Washington blamed Iran-backed forces in Iraq of attacking the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad this week and of carrying out an earlier attack that killed an American military contractor in Iraq.

The Pentagon statement blamed Gen. Soleimani directly for the embassy siege and for orchestrating the attack that killed the American contractor. It also noted that the Quds force — an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — is designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.

“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,” the statement said. “General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week.”

Related Story: What is the Quds Force, the elite Iranian military unit?

In Washington, Republicans applauded the news while Democrats feared further escalation.

Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Gen. Soleimani “is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans.”

“The president made the brave and right call, and Americans should be proud of our service members,” he said.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and Armed Services Committee member who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army, said that Soleimani “got what he richly deserved, and all those American soldiers who died by his hand also got what they deserved: justice.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said Iran miscalculated in believing that the U.S. was paralyzed by domestic political divisions, an apparent reference to impeachment.

He said President Trump “exercised admirable restraint while setting clear red lines & the consequences for crossing them” after U.S. forces faced repeated attacks from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said “the price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically.”

He added, “Thank you, Mr. President, for standing up for America.”

The White House itself was silent Thursday night, though Mr. Trump tweeted an image of a U.S. flag without elaboration.

Jason Bordoff, a professor at Columbia University and a former Obama energy adviser, cautioned on Twitter that “this is how US-Iran tit-for-tat spirals out of control. Iran’s response will be severe & deadly. And certainly may include escalating attacks on energy infrastructure.”

One of the first Democratic presidential candidates to issue a statement was Andrew Yang, who said, “War with Iran is the last thing we need and is not the will of the American people. We should be acting to deescalate tensions and protect our people in the region.”

Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a Foreign Relations Committee member, said Mr. Trump’s “apparent assassination of Soleimani is a massive, deliberate, and dangerous escalation of conflict with Iran.”

“The president just put the lives of every person in the region — U.S. service members and civilians — at immediate risk. We need de-escalation now,” Mr. Markey tweeted.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said the president owes lawmakers “a full explanation of airstrike reports” and “all the facts” of the reasoning behind it.

“The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades.”

Other Democrats warned that Mr. Trump may have started a war without congressional approval.

Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Gen. Soleimani “was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question.”

“The question is this … did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?” he said on Twitter.

But Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, disagreed with Mr. Murphy on whether the president needed to consult with Congress.

“Someone let the Senator know that these men just got done directing attacks against our embassy & K1 [air base] facility,” Mr. Crenshaw said on Twitter. “This was clearly a response to aggression & a deterrent to future attacks, well within current authorization. It’s a great day for the fight against evil in this world.”

Critics of the president posted a since-deleted video of Mr. Trump from 2011, when he warned that then-President Barack Obama would likely start a war with Iran to boost his reelection prospects.

“Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Obama at the time. “He’s weak and he’s ineffective. So the only way he figures that he’s going to get reelected and, as sure as you’re sitting there, is to start a war with Iran.”

⦁ Mike Glenn contributed to this report.

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