Friday 17 January 2020

Trump tucked into ice cream while drone hovered above its target

US President Donald Trump. Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
US President Donald Trump. Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Josie Ensor and Nick Allen

Donald Trump was enjoying a meal of meatloaf and ice cream at Mar-a-Lago when he learnt that General Qasem Soleimani, Iran's military mastermind, had been killed by a US drone in Baghdad.

Some time after the president finished his dessert, he used his phone to post a photograph of the American flag.

Mr Trump's risky gamble to launch a decapitation strike against Iran's second most powerful man had gone like clockwork.

Soleimani disembarked from his plane at Baghdad airport in Iraq just after midnight local time. Unbeknown to him, hovering high above was an MQ-9 Reaper "hunter-killer" drone, remotely piloted from a US base. The $64m (€57m) drone, with a 20m wingspan, circled silently and waited for him to emerge.

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Soleimani was greeted by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander with the Popular Mobilisation Forces [PMF]. Mr Muhandis pulled up to the aircraft steps in two cars and Soleimani got in. Also in the cars were Mohammed Ridha Jabri, the PMF public relations chief, and eight others.

Moments later, the vehicles passed through a cargo area and headed for an access road leading out of the airport. The drone swooped in, unleashing four missiles, which struck the targets, killing all the occupants.

Pictures taken by drivers passing on a nearby road showed the wreckage still burning on the slip road next to a concrete wall. The bodies were badly mutilated, but Soleimani was quickly identified by a distinctive red ring on his finger.

Mr Trump had spent the days before the strike holed up in unusual seclusion at Mar-a-Lago, and mulling over his response to recent Iranian-inspired attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad. He was believed to have seen photographs of graffiti left by rioters at the embassy, in which they pledged allegiance to Soleimani.

Mr Trump began consulting with advisers early in the week about how to respond. That included Lindsey Graham, the senator and Iran hawk, who was spotted playing golf with the president and later confirmed he had been briefed ahead of the strike.

Mr Trump's mind was made up after he was briefed that Soleimani was planning what US intelligence officials called a "significant" action against US interests, with the potential to kill hundreds in Iraq, and possibly elsewhere.

The US had been tracking Soleimani's movements for years, using sophisticated electronic surveillance.

The best opportunity in a while to kill him came as his plane arrived at Baghdad airport, from either Lebanon or Syria. US intelligence had learnt of the trip through a combination of highly classified information from human sources, electronic intercepts and reconnaissance aircraft.

Mr Trump had warned on Twitter in recent days that Iran would "pay a very BIG PRICE!" for the embassy siege, and that he was making a "threat". But, according to US officials, Soleimani had become blasé and his convoy had little security.

Previous US presidents had decided against killing him, fearing the potential repercussions in the Middle East. As part of the Iranian state apparatus, he represented a very different prospect than terror leaders Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

However, Mr Trump, and Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, had become increasingly keen to neutralise him.

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