Early Friday morning, a drone strike killed five people, one of whom was notable Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad.
The attack drew swift criticism from Iran, who vowed vengeance for their slain general, and from critics in the US who considered the move to be shortsighted and reckless.
The evening the news broke in the US, the top three trending Twitter hashtags were all various spellings of “World War 3.”
Soleimani was a major figure in the Iranian government, and was largely considered an architect of the last 20 years of the Iranian military. Many considered him to be an obvious next choice for leader of the country after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranians largely viewed Soleimani as a hero and patriot.
The Pentagon argues that Soleimani’s killing came as a response to the missile attack that recently killed an American contractor in Iraq, and the December 31 attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad.
Soleimani, who was the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, was considered to be one of the foremost forces driving Iranian proxy wars in the Middle East.
The killing of Soleimani has incensed Tehran, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei swearing vengeance for the general.
The Supreme Leader announced that there would be three days of national mourning for the man considered by many Iranians to be a national hero, after which there would be retaliation.
Khamenei stated that it had always been Soleimani’s wish to become a martyr. However, the Supreme Leader added, “His pure blood was shed in the hands of the most depraved of human beings.”
Major General Ismail Qaani has been named as Soleimani’s successor, and Iran maintains that the Quds Force will be unchanged by Soleimani’s killing.
Tehran and Trump have been engaging in an ever-escalating shadow war since the 45th President took office. This assassination marks the most pronounced escalation of force in the conflict yet.
Political commentators like Feisal Istrabadi, who founded the Indiana University Center for the Study of the Middle East, fear this could lead to ever greater conflict in Iraq.
“This is a huge deal throughout the Middle East,” Istrabadi told reporters. “The fact that it was done over the territory of Iraq means that Iraq will become what I feared it would become from the beginning: the battleground between Iran and the United States.”