Top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani was killed Friday in a US strike on Baghdad’s international airport, prompting Tehran to vow “revenge”, dramatically upping the stakes in bitter tensions between Tehran and Washington.
The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered Soleimani’s “killing”, after a pro-Iran mob this week laid siege to the US embassy.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly vowed to take “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death, the biggest escalation yet in a feared proxy war between Iran and the US on Iraqi soil.
As the US embassy urged all American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately”, Trump tweeted out a picture of the US flag without any explanation.
Early Friday, a volley of missiles hit Baghdad’s international airport, striking a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Iran.
Just a few hours later, the Revolutionary Guard Corps announced Soleimani “was martyred in an attack by America on Baghdad airport this morning.”
The Hashed confirmed both Soleimani and its deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in what it said was a “US strike that targeted their car on the Baghdad International Airport road.”
The Hashed is a network of mostly-Shiite armed units, many of whom have close ties to Tehran but which have been officially incorporated into Iraq’s state security forces.
‘Major decapitation strike’
Muhandis was the Hashed’s deputy chief, but was widely recognised as the real shot-caller within the group.
Soleimani headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and also served as Iran’s pointman on Iraq, visiting the country in times of turmoil.
Both were sanctioned by the United States.
The Pentagon said Soleimani had been “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
It said it took “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani,” but did not specify how.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed the US strike as “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation,” as Khamenei declared three days of mourning.
The Iraqi prime minister said the strike was a “flagrant violation” of a security accord with the US, warning it will “spark a devastating war in Iraq.”
And a paramilitary group urged its fighters to be on high alert.
“All resistance fighters must be ready, as an upcoming conquest and a great victory await us,” said Qais al-Khazali, the head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, in a handwritten note seen by AFP.
Militiaman-turned-cleric Moqtada Sadr also reactivated his Mahdi Army, nearly a decade after dissolving the notoriously anti-American force.
But there were daring celebrations in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of a three-month protest movement that has slammed the Iraqi government as corrupt and beholden to Tehran.
“Oh Qasem Soleimani, this is a divine victory,” demonstrators chanted as some danced in the streets.
Trump ‘changed the rules’ –
Analysts said the strike would be a gamechanger in the tensions between Iran and the US.
“Trump changed the rules -— he wanted (Soleimani) eliminated,” said Ramzy Mardini, a researcher at the US Institute of Peace.
Soleimani “didn’t appreciate that his actions of threatening another hostage crisis at the (US) embassy changed the way things were going to be done,” Mardini said.
Phillip Smyth, a US-based specialist in Shiite armed groups, described the strike as “the most major decapitation strike that the US has ever pulled off.”
He told AFP it would have “bigger” ramifications than the 2011 US operation that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 American raid that killed Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“There is no comparison,” Smyth added.
But others said it remains unclear how Iran could respond to the blow.
“A lot of the focus is on what is the price that the US is gonna pay and how Iran will retaliate against the US,” said Fanar Haddad of the Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.
The developments come after an unprecedented attack on the US mission in Baghdad.
A mob of Hashed supporters surrounded the US embassy on Tuesday angered by American air strikes that killed 25 fighters from the network’s hardline Kataeb Hezbollah faction, which is backed by Iran.
The US had acted in response to a rocket attack days earlier that had killed an American contractor working in Iraq.
Trump had blamed Iran for a spate of rocket attacks targeting US forces as well as the siege at the embassy, saying: “They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat.”
US lawmakers however were not told in advance of Friday’s attack, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel said in a statement.
Ties between the US and Iran have deteriorated since Washington pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.
It then reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, aiming to choke off its oil exports.
Oil prices soared following Friday’s attack, with Brent surging 4.4 percent to $69.16 and WTI jumping 4.3 percent to 63.84.
The attack threatens to destabilise Iraq, which has close political and military ties with both Tehran and Washington.
The United States led the 2003 invasion against then-dictator Saddam Hussein and has worked closely with Iraqi officials since.
But its influence has waned compared with that of Tehran, which has carefully crafted personal ties with Iraqi politicians and armed factions, even during Saddam’s reign.
Lagos govt. approves full reopening of churches, mosques
The Lagos state government on Saturday approved the full reopening of worship centres in the state.
Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who announced this during a briefing in the state said churches are now allowed to observe their mid-week services, while the mosques are also allowed to carry out their five times a day prayer routine, with strict compliance to COVID-19 safety protocols.
“We must not forget that the coronavirus pandemic is still very much with us, and we must, therefore, strive to prioritize the safety of all our children, teachers, parents, and the entire society,” the governor said.
Before now, the state had allowed for a gradual re-opening of places of worship as lockdowns eased.
With the full re-opening now, the governor has urged Lagosians to continue to act responsibly and maintain the required levels of hygiene.
Some other parts of the world have witnessed a resurgence of COVID-19 infections and rising possibilities of “hard lockdowns”, which according to Governor Sanwo-Olu may become inevitable for Nigerians if caution is not applied.
“Let me make it clear that if we do not continue to maintain our guard, and sustain the adherence to all required protocols and guidelines, we will find ourselves in a situation where fresh lockdowns are inevitable,” he warned.
“The only way to avoid this is to continue to act responsibly: maintain the required levels of hygiene, through regular handwashing and use of sanitizers, wear masks in all public places, avoid non-essential public gatherings, and maintain the prescribed levels of physical distancing at all times”.
The total infections in the country have now risen to 56,956, with 48,305 patients recovered and 1,094 deaths recorded.
At the onset of the virus in Nigeria, Lagos became the epicenter, gapping other states with its case load despite frantic efforts to curb the spread.
However, in recent times, other states such as Plateau have started to witness a surge with the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 stating that it might become the new epicenter in the country.
Photos: Oyo deputy gov. donates patrol motorcycles to security operatives
The deputy governor of Oyo state, Engr. Raufu Olaniyan on Friday made a personal donation of patrol motorcycles to security operatives in Oke Ogun area of the state to boost their role of ensuring the safety of lives and properties.
Speaking at the event, Olaniyan noted that Security is one of the cardinal objectives of the present administration headed by Governor Seyi Makinde, adding that the government has invested massively to provide facilities and equipment for security operatives in the state to perform their roles.
Speaking further, the deputy governor remarked that ” In the light of the security challenges in the country, it is imperative that we support the government in tackling this malady. It was therefore a delight for me to donate patrol motorcycles, from my purse, to the various security outfits operating in the Oke Ogun area of our state.”
He stressed that security matters should be the responsibility of all and not the government alone.
Olaniyan, however , urged well meaning individuals and lovers of peace to support the government in creating a safe and conducive environment for growth.
Yorubas will resist arrest of proponents of Oodua Republic – Group
Groups under the aegis of Yoruba Frontier Movement (YFM) on Thursday called on President Muhammadu Buhari to resist from using security agencies to harass, intimidate or arrest proponents of Oodua Republic.
YFM in a statement made available to journalists by its National Coordinator, Comrade Abdulkabir Adesina and National Secretary, Aderemi Adisa condemned the plan by security agencies to arrest proponents of Oodua Republic, saying that such action will only lead to breakdown of law and order.
The statement read, “We have received reports that there are plans by security agencies to arrest proponents of Oodua Republic headed by Chief Sunday Igboho. We are using this medium to call on President Muhammadu Buhari to order security agencies to desist from such attempts because proponents of Oodua Republic are operating within the ambit of the law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The group wondered why proponents of Oodua Republic have become the target of security agencies while Fulani herdsmen and bandits have remained untouchable.
“We should even go down memory lane. President Muhammadu Buhari while desperately seeking to become Nigeria’s president made many inciting statements capable of bringing anachy into the country but ex- President Jonathan never ordered for his arrest. On many occasions northern youths and elders have made similar inciting statements and heaven didn’t come down. As a matter of fact we have been calling for restructuring of Nigeria for a very long time.The failure of government to restructure Nigeria is the reason why we are calling for Oodua Republic. Yorubas have suffered greatly since the amalgamation of the country in 1914 owing to injustice against Yoruba race in Nigeria. As a race we have every right to demand for our right to either stay with Nigeria or go our separate ways”, the statement added.
It further lauded Chief Sunday Igboho for taking the bull by the horn, saying that Yorubas are fully in his support.
“We are using this medium to call on traditional rulers, Obas , leaders and all Yoruba sons and daughters to support the proponents of Oodua Republic”, the statement concluded.
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