Pompeo says U.S. killed Iranian commander to prevent 'imminent attack'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. air strike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian commander aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in television interviews on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on human rights in Iran at the State Department in Washington, U.S., December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

Pompeo, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, declined to discuss many details of the alleged threat but said it was “an intelligence-based assessment” that drove the U.S. decision to target Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

“He was actively plotting in the region to take actions - a big action as he described it -- that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent,” Pompeo told CNN, echoing an earlier Pentagon statement on Thursday.

“These were threats that were located in the region,” Pompeo added. “Last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack ... was disrupted.”

“What was sitting before us was his travels throughout the region, his efforts to make a significant strike against Americans,” Pompeo said separately on Fox News. “There would have been many Muslims killed as well, Iraqis and people in other countries.”

Iran has threatened to retaliate after the overnight U.S. air strike against the second most powerful figure in Iran that marked a dramatic escalation in the Iran-U.S. conflict in the Middle East.

The strike was authorized by U.S. President Donald Trump, who separately said on Friday that Soleimani, “was plotting to kill many more” Americans but also gave no other details.

Democratic U.S. lawmakers, however, said they had not been briefed about any imminent Iranian plot or the planned U.S. strike, and warned the Trump administration against pursuing war without congressional approval.

U.S. Representative Max Rose, a U.S. Army veteran, told CNN he wanted more information about the underlying intelligence that drove the strike, including how imminent any Iranian attack was. He also said he wanted to know what the administration’s plan was to deal with an inevitable Iranian response.

Republican lawmakers echoed Pompeo, lauding the U.S. strike and praising Trump for taking the action.

“The escalation is not on our part,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, who served in the U.S. Air Force, told CNN.

Pompeo told Fox the strike “was aimed at disrupting that plot, disrupting further aggression and we hope, setting the conditions for de-escalation as well.”

He added that the United States has fortified its assets in the region and is prepared for any possible retaliation, including a cyberattack.

“Trump and the entire United States government is prepared to respond appropriately,” he told Fox.

Reporting by Susan Heavey and Mary Milliken; Editing by John Stonestreet, Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci