WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday the attack that killed Iranian military leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani was in response to an "imminent attack."
"This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove this," Pompeo told CNN. "He was actively planning in the region," he said, adding the U.S. action "saved American lives."
Pompeo declined to disclose specific details of the intelligence but said the threats were not aimed at the U.S.
"These were threats located in the region," Pompeo said.
The State Department urged all American citizens to leave Iraq "immediately" as Washington braced for what happens next after the airstrike, which drew strong condemnation from Iran and threatens to escalate tensions with the U.S.
The agency warned Americans to stay away from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and suspended all public consular activities "until further notice." The warning followed days of sometimes violent protests by Iranian-backed militia members and their supporters, who smashed their way into the embassy compound to protest U.S. airstrikes that killed at least two dozen Iran-backed fighters in Iraq.
Iran's response: Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vows vengeance for Gen. Qasem Soleimani's death
The Pentagon said in a statement released Thursday evening that the latest airstrike had been carried out at President Donald Trump's direction as a "defensive action" against Soleimani. The Defense Department said Thursday that Soleimani had "orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Quantock, the former director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command, said the Iranian regime is likely to lash out in several ways after the killing of Soleimani. He was a national hero in Iran and his death is a "blow to the Iranian psyche."
The Iranians generally are deliberate in formulating attacks but may move more quickly in light of Soleimani's prominence, Quantock said.
Attacks by Iranian surrogates, such as the militias in Iraq aligned and supported by Iran, are likely to occur first, he said. Those groups had viewed Soleimani as "their guy," Quantock said. The 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria will need to be especially vigilant in the coming days, he said.
U.S. and coalition embassies throughout the Middle East will also be potential targets. In the Persian Gulf, Iranian Republican Guard fast boats could make provocative runs at U.S. Navy vessels, seeking to draw fire and be seen as victims.
"The potential for escalation is especially high as the current Iraqi regime is now firmly caught/wedged between their two major benefactors who assisted them in their fight again ISIS," Quantock said. "It's difficult to prognosticate how this plays out."
Democrats, who said they had not been notified of the operation in advance, urged caution and called on the Trump administration to brief members of Congress on further developments.
In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the airstrike "risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence," and was carried out without proper congressional authorization. Pelosi called on the Trump administration to brief Congress on the situation.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, also a Democratic presidential candidate, said Trump had "just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox."
Who was Qasem Soleimani?: What we know about the strike that killed Iranian military leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani
Acknowledging that Soleimani had "deserved to be brought to justice," Biden slammed the airstrike as a "hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region" and questioned the Trump administration's "discipline or "long-term vision."
Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who also is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, called Soleimani "a murderer with the blood of Americans on his hands."
"Without more information," Bloomberg said, "we can only hope that the president has carefully thought through the national security implications of this attack for our country and the grave risks involved. But given his track record and his history of making reckless and impulsive decisions that undermine U.S. strategic objectives and weaken our allies - most recently in Syria - there is every reason to be deeply concerned."
House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said he was "deeply concerned about the repercussions" of the airstrike and called it a "massive escalation in our conflict with Iran."
"This strike went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress," he said, noting how the lack of notification "raises serious legal problems."
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said, "All steps must now be taken to protect our forces against the almost inevitable escalation and increased risk."
Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans. But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war.
- Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) January 3, 2020
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a close Trump ally, struck a more hawkish tone.
"If Iranian aggression continues and I worked at an Iranian oil refinery, I would think about a new career," he wrote on Twitter, directly thanking Trump for "standing up for America."
Graham, who was spotted at Trump's private resort in Palm Beach, Fla., earlier this week, said during a Friday morning appearance on Fox and Friends that he was briefed on the plan to kill Soleimani before it happened.
"I was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida," he said. "I really appreciate President Trump letting the world know you cannot kill an American without impunity."
If Iranian aggression continues and I worked at an Iranian oil refinery, I would think about a new career.
- Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 3, 2020
Graham's fellow member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, asked whether the Trump administration had developed a "coherent" strategy" on Iran.
"With ever increasing challenges confronting us in the Middle East, it's imperative that the US & our allies articulate & pursue a coherent strategy for protecting our security interests in the region," Romney wrote on Twitter.
With ever increasing challenges confronting us in the Middle East, it's imperative that the US & our allies articulate & pursue a coherent strategy for protecting our security interests in the region. I will be pressing the Administration for additional details in the days ahead.
- Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) January 3, 2020
Around the world, reaction to Soleimani's death was mixed.
Russia called Soleimani's killing a "murder" and offered condolences to Iran.
"We consider the murder of Soleimani as a result of an American missile strike on the outskirts of Baghdad as an adventurous step that will lead to an increase in tension in the entire region," said a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry. "Soleimani has faithfully served the cause of protecting the national interests of Iran. We express our sincere condolences to the Iranian people."
China "has always opposed the use of force in international relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a daily press briefing. "We urge the relevant sides, especially the United States, to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid further escalating tensions."
The Turkish Foreign Ministry, in a statement published by the state-funded Anadolu news agency, said: "We strongly emphasize a warning once again that turning Iraq into a conflict zone will hurt peace and stability."
The United Kingdom issued a low-key statement urging both sides to cool down.
"We have always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qasem Soleimani," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. "Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate."
He added: "Further conflict is in none of our interests."
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, David Jackson and Courtney Subramanian
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Qasem Soleimani killing: Pompeo says airstrike in response to 'attack'