Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has struggled to justify Donald Trump’s claim that the killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani prevented an imminent attack and saved American lives.
Pompeo toured America’s political talk shows on Sunday in an attempt to defend the legality of the air strike, ordered by the president without congressional authorisation, that killed Suleimani and provoked threats of revenge from Iran and its ally Hezbollah.
Democratic opponents were unimpressed. Moments after Pompeo’s appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Pete Buttigieg, a military veteran and candidate for president, said: “The secretary of state just now, when asked whether this strike prevented directly an attack, he did not prove, he did not demonstrate, he did not even claim that the answer was yes.”
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Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, was killed on Friday in a US drone strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport, a stunning attack that analysts said brings the US and Iran closer to war than at any point in the past 40 years.
Qassem Suleimani, killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad, had become well known among Iranians and was sometimes discussed as a future president. Many considered Suleimani to have been the second most powerful person in Iran, behind supreme leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, but arguably ahead of President Hassan Rouhani. He was commander of the Quds Force, the elite, external wing of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the Trump administration designated as a terror organisation in April last year.
He was born in Rabor, a city in eastern Iran, and forced to travel to a neighbouring city at age 13 and work to pay his father’s debts to the government of the Shah. By the time the monarch fell in 1979, Suleimani was committed to the clerical rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and joined the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary force established to prevent a coup against the newly declared Islamic Republic.
Within two years, he was sent to the front to fight in the war against the invading Iraqi army. He quickly distinguished himself, especially for daring reconnaissance missions behind Iraqi lines, and the war also gave him his first contact with foreign militias of the kind he would wield to devastating effect in the decades to come.
By the the time the Iraq government fell in 2003, Suleimani was the head of the Quds force and blamed for sponsoring the Shia militias who killed thousands of civilian Iraqis and coalition troops. As fighting raged on Iraq’s streets, Suleimani fought a shadow war with the US for leverage over the new Iraqi leadership.
Once described by American commander David Petraeus as ‘a truly evil figure’, Suleimani was instrumental in crushing street protests in Iran in 2009. In recent months outbreaks of popular dissent in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran were again putting pressure on the crescent of influence he had spent the past two decades building. Violent crackdowns on the protests in Baghdad were blamed on militias under his influence.
Eighteen months before his death, Suleimani had issued Donald Trump a public warning, wagging his finger and dressed in olive fatigues. “You will start the war but we will end it.”
Pompeo was asked by CNN host Jake Tapper how “imminent” the attacks purportedly being orchestrated by Suleimani were, and whether they had been expected in a matter of days or weeks.
The secretary of state replied: “If you’re an American in the region, days and weeks – this is not something that’s relevant. We have to prepare, we have to be ready, and we took a bad guy off the battlefield.”
In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Pompeo added that the administration had no choice. “We would have been culpably negligent had we not taken this action,” he said. “The American people would have said that we weren’t doing the right thing to protect and defend American lives. President Trump has been crystal clear.”
Pompeo claimed “there were in fact plots that he was working on that were aimed directly at significant harm to American interests throughout the region, not just in Iraq”.
Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked if retaliation against American citizens should now be expected. Pompeo replied: “It may be that there’s a little noise here in the intermittent.”
Meanwhile, on ABC’s This Week, Pompeo was again questioned about reports indicating that intelligence behind the strike was thin. He insisted there was “no scepticism” among senior leaders who had access to all of the intelligence.
“The intelligence assessment made clear that no action, allowing Suleimani to continue his plotting, his planning, his terror campaign created more risks than taking the action that we took last week. We reduced risks,” Pompeo said in the interview.
The sudden move by Trump, who is facing an impeachment trial and tough re-election campaign, elated Republican hawks including his former national security adviser John Bolton but seemed to undermine his “America first” policy and pledge to pull American out of the Middle East.
Related: Trump campaigns with patriotism after airstrike – but election is still far off
After Iran promised retaliation, Trump on Saturday threatened to hit hard 52 Iranian sites – “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” – if Tehran attacks Americans or US assets.
Tapper of CNN pressed Pompeo on whether cultural sites were fair targets. The former congressman and CIA director said: “We’re going to do the things that are right and the things that are consistent with American lives. I’ve been – I’ve been part of the discussion and the planning process.
“Everything I’ve seen about how we will respond, with great force and great vigor. If the Iranian leadership makes a bad decision, we hope that they won’t. But when they do, America will respond.”
Pompeo would not say whether he had been in contact with Iranian officials but said there was no doubt in his mind that Iran “gets clearly the message from the American leadership”.
Democrats have sharply criticised Trump’s Twitter threat. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, said: “The moment we all feared is likely upon us.
An unstable President in way over his head, panicking, with all his experienced advisers having quit, and only the sycophantic amateurs remaining. Assassinating foreign leaders, announcing plans to bomb civilians. A nightmare.”
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York warned that Trump could commit a “war crime”.