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Who was Qassem Soleimani, and what does his death mean for Iran — and the U.S.?

Qassem Soleimani was the Middle East's most recognized military commander, strategist and operational chief of Iran's militant proxies and a symbol of its regional ambitions. He was killed in a targeted U.S. drone attack Friday at Baghdad’s international airport. Nick Schifrin reports and joins special correspondent Jane Ferguson and Judy Woodruff to discuss his death and the regional response.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    An elite Iranian general is dead, and the United States and Iran are closer to conflict.

    The U.S. military killed Qasem Soleimani in Iraq today. Washington called it self-defense. Tehran called it a crime and vowed vengeance.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He was the Middle East's most recognized military commander, the strategist and operational chief of Iran's militant network, the symbol of Iran's regional ambitions. And Qasem Soleimani died last night, when an American drone fired missiles into his car at Baghdad's airport.

    Today, U.S. officials told "PBS NewsHour" it was a target of opportunity. The president pre-authorized the strike. Military and intelligence officials tracked Soleimani, and waited for him to land and meet with this man, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraqi militias closely aligned with Iran.

    The U.S. blames Soleimani and those militias for the siege of the U.S. Embassy this week, and for launching nearly a dozen attacks on U.S. bases, including one last Friday that killed a U.S. contractor.

    Today, President Trump said Soleimani's death prevented more attacks.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Iran, Soleimani's death sparked widespread anger. During Friday prayers, congregants chanted "Death to America."

    Outside, they burned U.S. and Israeli flags. And a local commander delivered a threat.

  • Mohammad Reza Yazdi (through translator):

    The Americans must know now that, due to the crime they have committed, they will face no safety or peace anywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The protesters also filed in front of our cameras with less anger than sorrow.

    They beat their chests and mourned a man they called

  • Man (through translator):

    When I heard the news of the general's assassination today, I got very sad. I got sad because we lost a blessing, a son of God, a man the whole world knew so well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Soleimani was one of Iran's most popular figures, outside the supreme leader, who rose through the ranks of the military to become an icon of ruthless resistance.

    As commander of the elite paramilitary Quds Force, he confronted U.S. allies around the region and warned U.S. presidents.

  • Qasem Soleimani (through translator):

    Hereby, I tell you, the gambling Mr. Trump, be aware that we are near you, where you do not even imagine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Soleimani helped build what he called an axis of resistance, militant Shia Muslim groups in half-a-dozen countries or territories across the region.

    In Yemen, Shia Houthi militants who receive arms from Iran fight against a coalition led by Iran's longtime enemy Saudi Arabia. In Syria, Soleimani personally helped convince Russia to intervene in the war, and, today, Russia and Iranian-backed fighters have helped President Bashar al-Assad largely win the war.

    Every time Soleimani arrived in Syria, he was greeted as a hero. In Lebanon, Iranian-founded and -backed Hezbollah threatens Israel with tens of thousands of Iranian-provided rockets and missiles. Today, Hezbollah supporters vowed revenge.

  • Man (through translator):

    Call upon us. We are here to strike the oppressors and to fight.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And in Iraq, the U.S. says fighters loyal to Soleimani killed more than 600 American troops during the Iraq War. But despite targeting the U.S., in the war on ISIS, Soleimani provided many of the ground troops who pushed ISIS out.

    Those troops are today integrated into the Iraqi military. And his supporters now fill Iraq's Parliament and vow to evict U.S. troops from the country.

    But, today, longtime Soleimani adversary Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the U.S.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

    President Trump deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully, decisively.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Washington, the response to the strike fell largely on party lines.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    For too long, this evil man operated without constraint, and countless innocents have suffered for it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer:

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    This action may well have brought our nation closer to another endless war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But President Trump today described the attack as defensive.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We took action last night to stop a war. We didn't take action to start a war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For 15 years, U.S. officials have been following Soleimani, accusing him of global terrorism.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Today, we remember and honor the victims of Soleimani's many atrocities, and we take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, what was left of the car where Soleimani died sat in the morning sun. The symbol of Iran's regional ambitions is dead, but the ambitions themselves are very much alive and unchanged.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick joins me here in the studio, along with, from Beirut, our special correspondent, Jane Ferguson.

    Jane, I want to come to you first.

    What are you learning about reaction in the region, especially from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Well, of course, Judy, from Hezbollah, we have seen some of the strongest reaction in terms of rhetoric so far.

    They released a statement earlier on today, saying that this was a huge crime and — quote — "It will be the responsibility, duty and action of all mujahideen brothers throughout the world to take harsh revenge."

    It's worth noting that it's believed he — Soleimani was flying back to Baghdad from Beirut. He, of course, had very strong relations here with the Iranian proxy Hezbollah. And he had been advising both the Iraqi government and the Lebanese group Hezbollah on how to deal with protests that were affecting them, protests that, yes, were about domestic politics, but threatened Iranian hegemony and Iranian influence in the region.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, separately, what are you learning from the administration about the legal justification for what happened?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    White House officials are very clear there's two justifications, one, self-defense. And they say that comes both from the Constitution and also international law.

    And, two, they cite the 2001 post-9/11 authorization to use military force, which, of course, Judy, was about 9/11. We should note that the Quds Force, that Iran had nothing to do with 9/11.

    But now Presidents Trump, Obama and Bush all have used that AUMF, all used that military force authorization to pursue military interventions across the world since 9/11.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jane, back to you.

    We know Iran involved in so many conflicts around the region. What are you hearing about what the repercussions from this could be.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Like you say, Judy, their tentacles have spread so far across the region, that the repercussions could be huge, on two sides, on both the conflicts that they are involved in — and that's, of course, in places like Syria, where the Iranian — special Iranian forces, as well as Soleimani himself, were advising and helping with the Syrian government there — and across Iraq, as well as here in Lebanon.

    Thinking about the reaction that Iran could possibly basically invoke in the coming days and weeks, there are so many possibilities, whether it's Hezbollah here in Lebanon, who are one of the strongest armed groups in the region, or in Iraq in terms of mobilizing politicians who have been already calling for U.S. troops to be pulled out of Iraq.

    There are about 5,000 troops there at the moment. And if politicians were to come to the rare moment of agreement in Iraq to vote to push American troops out, then that, in turn, would also have a knock-on effect of basically making U.S. troops in Syria less viable, because they are, of course, supported by bases in Iraq.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, just finally, you have been talking to officials inside and outside the administration.

    What concerns are they expressing?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of them is exactly where Jane ended, the concern that Iraq will decide to evict U.S. troops from Iraq.

    And the Council of Representatives, the group that will decide that, will meet this weekend. And so there is some concern that this strike will inhibit the U.S. presence in Iraq moving forward.

    Escalation, as Jane said, across the region, absolutely possible, in many ways. The Trump administration today announced 3,000 more troops to the region. That's 18,000 troops in the last — over the last year or so, Judy. That's quite a few troops for a president who says he's wanted to leave the Middle East.

    And, three, some fears that I have been talking to people about, a more extreme successor. Jane mentioned the fact that Soleimani went to Beirut, went to Damascus, went to Baghdad. They were working on governments.

    He was largely a diplomat, in addition to being a military commander. There are people who are even more extreme than him behind him. The administration officials I talk to, though, say, look, we had the chance. We had to kill this person. He's got too much blood on his hands. We couldn't give this shot up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many threads to this story.

    Nick Schifrin, Jane Ferguson, thank you both.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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