The world reacted with alarm on Friday after top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US strike in Baghdad, with many governments appealing for restraint.
The attack was praised by US President Donald Trump’s Republicans and by close ally Israel, but elsewhere there were sharp warnings it could inflame regional tensions.
Trump said Soleimani was “terminated” when he was on the verge of attacking US diplomats but insisted that Washington is not seeking to topple Iran’s government.
But among Democrats, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the killing risks provoking a “dangerous escalation of violence.”
“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” his 2020 presidential rival Joe Biden said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained that Washington’s European allies had not been “as helpful” as he hoped.
“I spent the last day and a half, two days, talking to partners in the region, sharing with them what we were doing, why we were doing it, seeking their assistance. They’ve all been fantastic,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News.
“And then talking to our partners in other places that haven’t been quite as good. Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be,” he said.
“The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well,” Pompeo said.
“This was a good thing for the entire world, and we are urging everyone in the world to get behind what the United States is trying to do to get the Islamic Republic of Iran to simply behave like a normal nation,” he added.
Pompeo said earlier in the day that Soleimani was planning imminent action that threatened American citizens when he was killed in the strike.
Among US voters, many in the group on the religious right known as Christian Zionists believe preservation of Israel is necessary until prophesied conditions appear for the second coming of Jesus. This makes them strongly anti-Iran.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the initial lineup behind Trump’s action came in large part from Israel and the US evangelicals.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump “for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively” to eliminate the general.
“Just as Israel has the right of self-defense, the United States has exactly the same right.”
Trump wooed crucial evangelical voters – nearly all of whom are Republican – Friday with a speech in Florida where he told them God is “on our side” ahead of this year’s elections.
“Soleimani has been killed and his bloody rampage is now forever gone,” Trump said during his speech at a church. Soleimani had been plotting attacks, the president added, but they’ve been “stopped for good.”
“He was planning a very major attack, and we got him,” the president told an audience that was clearly on his side.
Trump – who despite three marriages, sexual assault allegations and a controversial business history has made himself a champion of right-wing Christians – promised “another monumental victory for faith and family, God and country, flag and freedom.”
“I really do believe we have God on our side,” Trump told the crowd at the King Jesus International Ministry mega church in Miami.
This was Trump’s first campaign rally of the year and sets him up for what will be a tough fight against his Democratic challenger in November.
Trump, who also faces a looming impeachment trial in the Senate, arrived on stage at the church to be blessed by several television pastors.
“Every demonic altar that has been raised against him will be torn down,” prayed Paula White, frequently portrayed as Trump’s spiritual advisor.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 77 percent of white evangelical Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing at the White House. That’s in marked contrast to the steady majority of the country disapproving of Trump’s performance.
And when it comes to impeachment over Trump’s alleged abuse of office, those evangelicals are even more united. A crushing 98 percent majority oppose his removal.
“We have not really seen throughout Trump’s presidency any discernible cracks,” PRRI chief executive Robert Jones told AFP.
“Our polling shows that they have been largely unfazed by the impeachment proceedings,” said Jones, the author of “The End of White Christian America.”
Friday’s event at the King Jesus International Ministry, also known as El Rey Jesus, aimed to lock down support for Trump in the key demographic.
In 2016, Trump won election thanks to victories in several crucial swing states, despite trailing Hillary Clinton by nearly three million ballots in the overall popular vote.
So any bleeding of evangelicals – especially in battleground states like Florida – could doom a repeat of the feat.
Evangelicalism is the primary form of Protestantism in America and the main religious group in the country, ahead of Catholics (21 percent) and traditional Protestants.
One of every four Americans identifies as evangelical, according to the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Trump has gone after the group since the before his surprise 2016 election victory.
First, he chose Mike Pence — who described himself as “Christian, conservative and Republican, in that order” — as his running mate.
Then he promised to nominate Supreme Court justices and federal judges opposed to abortion rights and favorable to lenient gun laws.
But Jones says Trump’s appeal also rests in his wider ability to reassure a group that feels increasingly vulnerable in a changing, increasingly mixed race America.
“This election is about the survival of our nation,” Trump told the rally, talking at length about a supposed “war on religion” that he had managed to stop.
Israel held emergency security talks Friday and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a foreign visit as the Jewish state braced itself for fallout from the assassination of a top Iranian military commander in a US air strike.
Defence Minister Naftali Bennett chaired a meeting of security chiefs, including the heads of the army, the National Security Council and the Mossad intelligence agency, his office said.
Netanyahu broke off an official visit to Greece and flew home, expressing support for the US strike that killed General Soleimani in Baghdad.
“President (Donald) Trump deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively,” he said. “Israel stands with the United States in its just struggle for peace, security and self-defence.”
On the ground, the Israeli army closed Mount Hermon ski resort on the annexed Golan Heights, a disputed territory that borders Syria and Lebanon.
Fighters of the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, Israel’s bitter foe with which it fought a devastating war in 2006, are deployed on the other side of the armistice line.
Although an Israeli military source said there were no new troop deployments, tanks and soldiers sealed off access to the Hermon site, while an AFP correspondent also spotted a battery of the Iron Dome missile defence system.
Late Friday, however, the army announced the site would be opened as usual on Saturday, “in accordance with a situation assessment”.
The heightened state of alert came after Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s killing, the biggest escalation yet in a feared proxy war between Iran and the US on Iraqi soil.
He was echoed by the leader of Hezbollah.
“Meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins… will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide,” Hassan Nasrallah said.
Soleimani, head of the Quds Force in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, had long also been in Israel’s sights for his alleged links to attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide.
Among them, Israel’s Haaretz daily said, were the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires and an attack on an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2012.
‘Hezbollah & Syria’
Yossi Mansharof, an expert on Iran and Shiite militias at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said Hezbollah was unlikely to seek a showdown in Lebanon given the country’s current economic and political crisis.
Hezbollah’s forces in Syria, however, could make a move, he said.
“Hezbollah can act against Israel from the Syrian side,” he told AFP. “They would not dare to drag Lebanon into a military escalation.”
In addition to Hezbollah forces in Syria, the Quds Force and “many, many militias which Soleimani has fostered” are also stationed in the war-torn country, he pointed out.
He said Hezbollah had a worldwide network of operatives, and an attack on American officials, high-ranking military officers or other interests was also possible.
The powerful organization has boasted in the past that it “can target New York and Washington”, Mansharof said.
In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which rules the territory condemned Soleimani’s killing but did not make any overt threat.
“Hamas sends its condolences to the Iranian leadership and people,” it said in a statement. “Hamas condemns this American crime, which raises tension in the region.”
The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said the Baghdad strike called for “a coordinated, comprehensive and continuous response from resistance forces” against “American and Zionist interests.”
Other foreign reaction:
“This action can seriously aggravate the situation in the region,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said, according to a Kremlin readout of a phone conversation with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.
‘Can’t afford war’
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of the need to avoid war in the Gulf.
“This is a moment in which leaders must exercise maximum restraint. The world cannot afford another war in the Gulf,” a spokesman for Guterres said in a statement.
“China has always opposed the use of force in international relations,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“We urge the relevant sides, especially the United States, to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid further escalating tensions.”
He said Iraq’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be respected.
‘Spark a war’
Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said the US strike, which also killed an Iraqi commander, would “spark a devastating war”.
“The assassination of an Iraqi military commander in an official post is an aggression against the country of Iraq, its state, its government and its people,” he said.
It was a “flagrant violation of the conditions authorising the presence of US troops” on Iraqi soil, he added.
‘Cycle of violence’
“The current cycle of violence in Iraq must be stopped before it spirals out of control,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“The EU calls on all the actors involved and on those partners who can have an influence to exercise maximum restraint and show responsibility in this crucial moment.”
‘Will not be forgotten’
The Syrian regime condemned the killing and heaped praise on the Iranian general.
The Syrian people “will not forget that he stuck by the side of the Syrian Arab army,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a letter of condolences sent to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia cautioned against “anything that could aggravate the situation” while the foreign ministers of Bahrain and Qatar also called for “restraint.”
The Jordanian foreign ministry also called for efforts to be made to avoid an escalation.
“Meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins … will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide,” the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militant group, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a statement.
“We will carry a flag on all battlefields and all fronts and we will step up the victories of the axis of resistance with the blessing of his pure blood.”
“Pakistan has viewed with deep concern the recent developments in the Middle East, which seriously threaten peace and stability in the region,” the foreign ministry said.
“Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, which should be adhered to. It is also important to avoid unilateral actions and use of force.”
The foreign ministry in neighbouring India said: “We have noted that a senior Iranian leader has been killed by the US. The increase in tension has alarmed the world.”
“It is manifest that the operation carried out by the US will increase insecurity and instability in the region… Turkey has always been against any foreign intervention in the region, assassinations and sectarian conflicts,” the foreign ministry said.
‘Act with restraint’
French President Emmanuel Macron urged restraint after Soleimani’s killing.
In his telephone call with Putin, Macron said there should be no “new dangerous escalation of tensions” and “called on all the parties to act with restraint,” the Elysee said.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London had “always recognised the aggressive threat” posed by Soleimani and his Quds Force. “Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”
– Reporting by AFP