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Act Of Self-Defense Or Assassination? Debate Surrounds Killing Of Top Iranian General


Legitimate act of self-defense or illegal assassination? That's the debate swirling around the killing of Iran's senior military commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani. The Iranian general was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last night. President Trump says it was an act of self-defense because he says it disrupted an imminent threat to American lives. Many are questioning the move. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Major General Qassem Soleimani was believed to have the blood of hundreds of American lives on his hands. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that U.S. intelligence found more attacks were on the way and needed to take defensive action.


MIKE POMPEO: And last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack that he was working actively was disrupted.

NORTHAM: The U.S. has fatally targeted other figures deemed a threat, including Osama bin Laden and, most recently, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. But Gary Solis, a former professor of the law of war at West Point, says Soleimani was the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, killed by a drone strike in a third country, Iraq.

GARY SOLIS: Let's say that General Milley, our current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was killed by an Iranian bomb outside of Dulles Airport. What would we call it? We'd call it murder and an act of war. Could be described as an assassination.

NORTHAM: A State Department official bristled at the characterization of Soleimani's killing as an assassination, saying it considers those illegal. Ashley Deeks, a senior fellow at the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia's Law School, says there are a lot of unknowns to make a call about the legality of Soleimani's killing. That includes just how imminent the threat was.

ASHLEY DEEKS: What was the threat that we thought that Soleimani posed? Was it an imminent threat of an armed attack? And that would potentially justify the use of force against him.

NORTHAM: But the administration has not given any details about the possible attacks or their timeline. John Bellinger is a former legal adviser to the State Department and the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. He says under domestic law, the president has broad authority under Article II of the Constitution to launch a preemptive strike.

JOHN BELLINGER: It's clearly lawful. It's clearly a exercise of the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief and chief executive to use force in the national interest.

NORTHAM: Bellinger says it's not certain what authorization the administration is going to use to justify military force against Soleimani. That will become apparent when Trump sends a War Powers report to Congress. The administration launched the strike on Soleimani without notifying or consulting with Congress. Bellinger says as far as international law is concerned, the issue of legality becomes muddier.

BELLINGER: It's generally impermissible under international law and the U.N. charter to use force. So in order for people to determine whether this is actually lawful as a matter of international law, the administration needs to put out more facts as to why they believe that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to the United States and U.S. forces.

NORTHAM: That may be a hard sell to the Iranians, but it could help make the Trump administration's case to other countries.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.