U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East.
However, Democratic critics said the Republican president had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.
Mr Pompeo, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, declined to discuss any details of the alleged threat but said it was “an intelligence-based assessment” that drove the decision to target Mr Soleimani.
Iran on Friday promised harsh revenge after the U.S. airstrike that killed Mr Soleimani.
Mr Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The overnight attack, authorised by President Donald Trump, was a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the U.S. and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strike aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East.
The attack also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani.
It followed a sharp increase in long-running U.S.-Iranian hostilities recently when pro-Iranian militiamen attacked the U.S. embassy in Iraq following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.
Iraq’s prime minister said with Friday’s attack Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country.
Israel put its army on high alert and U.S. allies in Europe including Britain, France and Germany voiced concerns about an escalation in tensions.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he died in an attack by U.S. helicopters.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.
Dozens of U.S. citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern city of Basra were leaving the country.
Iraqi officials said the evacuations would not affect output and exports were unaffected.
Oil prices jumped over $3 a barrel over concern about disruption to Middle East supplies.
Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani and said his death would double resistance against the U. S. and Israel.
In statements on state media, he called for three days of national mourning and appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Esmail Ghaani, a brigadier general, to replace him as Quds Force head.