UPDATE (AP) -- Iran has vowed "harsh retaliation" for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad's airport that killed its top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East.
The killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Iran.
Iran's supreme leader warned that a "harsh retaliation is waiting" for the U.S. after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the "international face of resistance."
The killing, and any forceful retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The U.S. ordered its citizens to leave Iraq and closed the embassy in Baghdad
BAGHDAD (ABC NEWS) -- Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's elite Quds Force, was killed late Thursday in an airstrike that targeted a convoy near the airport in Baghdad.
Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis also died in the airstrike, Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias, confirmed to ABC News.
The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed in a statement to ABC News it was responsible for the attack.
Here is the full statement from the Department of Defense:
"At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months - including the attack on December 27th - culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week.
This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world."