STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
An airplane touched down at the airport overnight in Baghdad, Iraq. One person who stepped off was Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. He commanded Quds Force, a kind of special operations unit that Iran uses to project its power abroad. That force has been very active in Iran's neighbor, Iraq. And so as Soleimani climbed into a two-vehicle convoy, the scenery around the airport was familiar to him.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Soleimani knew that U.S. forces are in Iraq and that U.S. aircraft fly overhead. But he must not have known that the U.S. had made a decision to kill him last night. The U.S. blames Iran for escalating violence in Iraq.
INSKEEP: Our coverage begins with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's on the line.
Tom, good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So how did this attack, then, unfold?
BOWMAN: Well, we don't have any details yet, Steve. The Pentagon is saying that it was a strike, so we're assuming it was a drone strike on his vehicles. He's heading, as you said, from the Baghdad airport. It looks like they - I'm assuming they got intelligence about his movements, either from a human source or they just picked up his communications - a cellphone, for example.
But, Steve, this is a common way for the U.S. to take out what they call high-value targets. They did this back in 2016. As the leader of the Taliban was driving through Pakistan, they took him out with a drone strike.
INSKEEP: Well, the U.S. must have had opportunities like this before. They've certainly been aware of Soleimani for years, tracked him for years and linked him to malign activities in many countries. What according to the Defense Department made this the moment to act?
BOWMAN: Well, they said he was behind the attack that killed an American contractor a couple of weeks back. He was behind the protests at the U.S. embassy this week - those violent protests where they burned a guard shack and set fire to the guard shack. And also, they said there were plans for other attacks on U.S. service members and diplomats. So I think at this point, they decided they had to act. People have been calling for Soleimani to be killed over the past number of years, and it looks like they finally decided to do it.
INSKEEP: How much of an escalation is it to kill Soleimani compared to the various acts of violence back and forth between the United States and Iran over the past many months?
BOWMAN: This is a huge escalation. This guy was a big deal. He was a special operations officer. He was a spy master. He was everything rolled into one. And again, people have been calling for him to be taken out for years now. And the escalation is the word, interestingly, everyone's using, and there's a concern about escalation. It's being used by members of Congress - also by the Syrian government, by the Iraqi government and by Russia as well.
So - and it's - obviously, there are thousands of U.S. forces in Iraq - 5,000 and tens of thousands in the region. They make for a ready target, Steve. It's not that difficult to fire a mortar or a rocket into a military base or the U.S. embassy compound.
INSKEEP: Well, the U.S...
INSKEEP: ...Has to be prepared for that retaliation. Iran's supreme leader is promising harsh retaliation. We don't know what that means. But you just alluded to one way Iran could strike back. It's got militias in Iraq that are aligned with its interests. What are some other possibilities around the region that the United States would have to be prepared for?
BOWMAN: Well, you could take - attacks on U.S. ships in the Gulf or allied ships in the Gulf, softer targets around the region - embassies, schools. It's a very serious situation here.
KING: NPR's Tom Bowman. And I want to bring in NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, who's been following the response here in Washington.
Good morning, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right. So this all took place overnight. Were members of Congress notified about the strike?
RASCOE: Well, it appears they weren't. The House Foreign Affairs chair, Eliot Engel, said that the strike went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress. And he said that that raises serious legal issues because - and he clarified that the Congress has not authorized war with Iran.
KING: OK. What are the legal issues it might raise, just quickly? Is what the president did possibly illegal? Or that's not what you're getting at.
RASCOE: Well, I think the idea that Congress should have had some type of authorization or role in what happened here and that they should have been - that they should have known and that maybe they should have authorized something like this.
KING: OK. There's not, we should point out, very much sympathy in the United States for Qassem Soleimani. But is anyone raising concerns here in Washington about how far this could go? Tom spoke about retaliation, about Iran promising retaliation. What are people in Washington concerned about?
RASCOE: Well, a lot of Democrats are just kind of raising the concern that this is a very serious action, and they're asking for explanations behind this decision. They're saying that this doesn't end here, that the U.S. needs to be prepared for retaliation. Senator Richard Blumenthal said taking this step could bring on the most consequential military confrontation in decades. So there's real uncertainty about where the U.S. goes from here and what types of plans the Trump administration has in place to deal with the repercussions from this.
KING: Has the president said anything?
RASCOE: Not yet. The only official response we've gotten has been from the Defense Department. President Trump did tweet out this picture of an American flag, but there were no words. Twitter is usually the way he can make sort of announcements and pronouncements. But this time, all we've got is an American flag.
INSKEEP: Well, let's bring Tom Bowman back into the conversation here because, Tom, as you know very well, the president has made it clear he doesn't want a full-scale war in the Middle East. He, in fact, campaigned on the opposite - bringing American troops home. But we're in this circumstance in which Iran appears comfortable risking war with various kinds of strikes against U.S. interests and U.S. allies. And the United States now seems quite comfortable pushing back in its view or preempting Iranian attacks with this significant escalation among other strikes on Iranian interests here.
Up to now, have Pentagon officials been confident that they are calibrating everything properly, that they are conducting acts of violence that they think are justified but not going so far that they will create a massive war that nobody seems to really want?
BOWMAN: No. I think of the Pentagon officials I've spoken with over the past year or so. You know, after the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, there's a concern that this could escalate too far. They've sent more troops to the Middle East. Just recently, 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were sent over. More could be sent from the 82nd.
I think the concern is, you know, diplomacy is the way to go if you talk to most military officers, people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past number of years - that once you head down this road, nobody knows where it's going to end up. Congressman Adam Smith, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, said, what is the strategy here? What is the way ahead? And I think that's a question a lot of people will be asking in the coming days.
INSKEEP: And, of course, U.S. statements by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and others have described the U.S. as somewhat responsive. We're responding to Iranian attacks. We're preempting Iranian attacks. But it's not as clear how the U.S. feels that it's going to push its way through to a more stable situation.
BOWMAN: The big question is, how is Iran going to respond now?
Tom, thanks so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman and NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.