President Donald Trump made the killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani a theme of his re-election campaign on Thursday, drawing cheers from thousands at a rally when he said the death saved lives and delivered “American justice”.
At the campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, Trump spent a lengthy part of his stump speech defending his order to kill Suleimani and rejecting criticism from Democrats who say he overstepped his authority with the US military’s drone strike against the commander of Iran’s military al-Quds force at Baghdad airport a week ago.
He accused Suleimani of organising violent protests by Iran-backed groups at the US embassy in Baghdad earlier this month. Trump, who frequently trumpets his support of the US military, said that if he had not sent US troops to protect the embassy, the demonstrators might have broken in and killed Americans or taken them hostage, a repeat of the 2011 storming of a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which the US ambassador was killed.
“Last week the United States once again took the bold and decisive action to save American lives and deliver American justice,” he said.
Trump’s appearance at the arena in Toledo was his first campaign rally of the 2020 election year, a sign of how critical the state is to his winning a second four-year term in office next November. Trump won Ohio in 2016 by 8 percentage points, flipping a state that had gone for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Trump and his top advisers have said Suleimani was masterminding “imminent” attacks against American targets in the Middle East, but have drawn criticism for not providing more detail to back up the claim.
“Suleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies, and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold,” Trump said.
Trump placed Suleimani’s death a week ago as part of his tough-on-militants message and an example of what he said was a stronger military under his watch.
Suleimani’s death prompted an Iranian retaliatory missile strike on Tuesday night against two bases hosting US and coalition troops in Iraq. Trump said he had been ready to launch retaliatory strikes until he was told that no American casualties had resulted.
“They hit us with 16 missiles and I said, ‘How many?’ We were ready to go. We were ready to go. I said, ‘How many? How many died? How many were wounded?’ ‘Sir, none.’ None. Pretty good warning system. None. ‘How many were hurt?’ ‘None, sir,’” he said.
“So we didn’t do anything. We were ready. We were ready. Not that I wanted to. But we were ready,” he said. “You have no idea. A lot of people got very lucky.”
While tensions remain, a broad war between the US and Iran has not erupted and Democrats are battling to rein-in Trump’s ability to launch a new conflict in the Middle East.
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution on Thursday to stop Trump carrying out further military action against Iran.
Trump mocked Democrats who felt more information was needed on the imminent danger Suleimani posed. He said he had to make a “split-section” decision and Democratic leaders would have dragged out the process and leaked to the US news media if he had given them a heads-up before the operation.
“He was a bad guy,” Trump said of Suleimani. “He was a blood-thirsty terror, and he’s no longer a terror, he’s dead. And yet now I see the radical-left Democrats have expressed outrage over the termination of this horrible terrorist.”