The Pentagon took credit for the strike Thursday night, saying President Trump ordered it as a pre-emptive act because Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Several U.S. lawmakers have praised the development, but some have raised questions about the extent to which Mr. Trump may have exceeded his presidential authority by ordering the strike without first notifying Congress.
Analysts cautioned Friday that a major military escalation with Iran may be about to unfold — a sentiment underscored by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s assertion that “severe revenge awaits those criminals who have tainted their filthy hands with [Soleimani’s] blood.”
In a statement carried by Tehran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency, the supreme leader vowed that regional military missions overseen by Soleimani — the commander of the Iranian military’s elite Quds force — won’t be interrupted because of the commander’s death.
“All friends — and indeed all enemies — should know that the path of jihad and resistance continues with increased motivation and certain victory awaits,” the statement said.
A U.S. drone strike at Baghdad International Airport Thursday also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Republicans have thanked the Trump administration for authorizing the strikes, which came after U.S. officials blamed Iran-backed forces for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad this week, as well as an earlier attack that killed an American military contractor in Iraq.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, praised Mr. Trump on Twitter, saying the president “exercised admirable restraint while setting clear red lines & the consequences for crossing them” following repeated attacks on U.S. interests by Iran’s proxies in Iraq.
Democrat lawmakers were more critical.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, said he “won’t grieve” Soleimani’s death, but also raised concern over potential repercussions.
“Iran is the world’s most prolific state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr. Engel said in a statement. “The regime in Tehran and its proxies have global reach that they may use to seek retribution for this strike, endangering the lives of Americans around the world.”
The New York Democrat went on to chide the Trump administration for authorizing the strike without explicit approval from Capitol Hill.
“This strike went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress. To push ahead with an action of this gravity without involving Congress raises serious legal problems and is an affront to Congress’s powers as a coequal branch of government,” Mr. Engel said. “Even if this strike was in self-defense, no current congressional authorization covered it and the President needs to notify Congress within 48 hours pursuant to the War Powers Resolution.”
The question of legal justification for military strikes against Iran — or against Iranian commanders operating in other nations, such as Iraq — has been swirling in U.S. national security circles for months.
The Trump administration has designated much of Iran’s military as a terrorist organization. But constitutional scholars generally agree the designation does not give full war powers authority to the president to carry out strikes without first notifying Congress.
The current congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) only allows the president to authorize strikes against al Qaeda without prior congressional notification. The law has underpinned the U.S. counterterrorism campaign and has largely gone unchanged for the past 17 years through three presidential administrations.
With that as a backdrop, some in the Trump administration have focused attention on the unlikely alliance between Iran and al Qaeda, asserting that Tehran has provided high-level al Qaeda operatives with a clandestine sanctuary to funnel fighters, money and weapons across the Middle East.
Skeptics have long doubted that Iran, which last year marked its 40th anniversary as a Shiite Muslim theocracy, could find common cause with a radical Sunni Islamist group such as al Qaeda. But some U.S. officials have argued that a confluence of interests and the common enemy of the U.S. have brought a level of covert cooperation and coordination between the two.
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