President Donald Trump gave the U.S. military standing approval to track Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, and kill him when the best opportunity arose, a senior Defense Department official said Friday.
When asked whether there had been a "standing order" from Trump to target Soleimani, the senior official said, "Sure, we had authority before the strikes to take that action."
In a conference call with defense reporters, the official did not give specifics on when the order to take out Soleimani came, but suggested it was well before the strikes at Baghdad International Airport on Thursday. The airstrike also killed a deputy commander for Iranian-backed militias and at least three others.
The official said Soleimani was targeted as the main planner of a series of attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq over the last several months.
The order to kill him "was based on a presidential direction given the ongoing planning and threats we saw in the region," the official said.
The best chance to do so while minimizing casualties to civilians came Thursday when "Soleimani arrived at a target of opportunity. He arrived at the airport. We had an opportunity and at the president's direction we took it," the official added.
In a series of tweets, Trump praised the military's action in eliminating a long-time enemy of the U.S., and later said the action had removed an impediment to peace in the region.
"We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war," he said Friday in remarks at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
As head of the Quds Force since at least 2002, Soleimani was plotting "imminent and sinister" attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but "we caught him and terminated him," Trump said.
Soleimani made the "death of innocent people his sick passion," the president added.
The senior defense official said that action against Soleimani was taken "to restore deterrence" against future attacks on U.S. forces.
Soleimani's absence could also aid U.S. efforts to "attempt to de-escalate the situation" in Iraq, where the Baghdad government has been struggling to come to terms with demonstrations against the failing economy and Iranian influence, the official said.
However, acting Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike that killed Soleimani and said the action was in violation of agreements on allowing the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq in the train, advise and assist mission against remnants of the Islamic State.
In a statement, Abdul-Mahdi said the aggressive U.S. action "on Iraqi soil is a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation" to the turmoil in the region.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.