Trump on strike that killed Soleimani: 'We did not take action to start a war'

By Kevin Liptak and Maegan Vazquez, CNN

(CNN) -- President Donald Trump said Friday that he authorized a recent precision strike against the commander of Iran's security and intelligence services because he was plotting "imminent and sinister attacks" on Americans.

"We caught him in the act and terminated him," Trump said Friday, a day after the strike that killed Qasem Soleimani at a Baghdad airport.

Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate that Soleimani should have been taken out by his predecessors and cast his decision as one of deterrence rather than aggression.

"We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war," Trump said.

Though Trump on Friday sought to cast his decision to take out the leader of Iran's security and intelligence services as prevention of war, he continued to threaten Iran's leaders with further strikes should they continue with destabilizing actions in the region.

"We do not seek regime change," Trump said, adding that Iran's use of proxy fights "must end and it must end now."

Trump boasted of US military might, and said the country has "the best intelligence in the world."

"If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary, and that in particular refers to Iran," Trump said.

Following the drone strike, a US defense official also told CNN Friday that the US will deploy thousands of additional troops to the Middle East amid unrest over tensions with Iran following the US embassy protests and Soleimani's death.

The Pentagon has blamed Soleimani and his Quds Force for attacks on coalition bases in Iraq in recent months, including the December 27 strike that culminated in the deaths of an American contractor and Iraqi personnel. The Trump administration has also blamed him for the December 31 US embassy attack in Baghdad, and in addition to the hundreds killed in his time as a commander, thousands more were wounded, the Pentagon said.

The December 31 US embassy bombardment in Iraq followed US airstrikes on an Iranian-backed militia group.

'Imminent attacks'

Numerous Trump administration officials said Friday that the US launched the targeted strike against Soleimani to curtail such an imminent attack against US interests.

State Department special representative for Iran Brian Hook said that Soleimani was planning "imminent attacks against American personnel and facilities in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and beyond."

The administration has yet to provide any public evidence to support its assertion about the upcoming attack, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that they'd do their best "to release everything that we know that's appropriate, that we can, that doesn't put anyone at risk."

When asked whether there is a risk now to US safety in the region, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley bluntly said, "Damn right there is a risk."

He also pushed back at assertions that the strike on Soleimani was impulsive.

"We fully comprehend the strategic risks and consequences," of killing the Iranian military commander," he said. "The risk of inaction exceeded the risk of action."

Three days of national mourning have been declared in Iran. Funeral processions will be held for Soleimani in both Iran and Iraq, Iranian state-run IRNA news agency reported.

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