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Trump aides to brief Congress on Iran as Tehran retaliates over killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/8/2020 Courtney Subramanian, Deirdre Shesgreen and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON — With tensions rapidly escalating between the U.S. and Iran, top Trump administration officials will head to Capitol Hill Wednesday to brief lawmakers on the latest developments — including Iran's ballistic missile attacks Tuesday striking two Iraqi airbases that house U.S. and coalition forces

Members of Congress initially sought Wednesday's closed-door briefings to learn more about President Donald Trump's surprise decision last week to authorize a drone strike that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran's second most powerful official. 

Now, the briefings will take on heightened urgency, as lawmakers demand answers about Iran's retaliatory action, which targeted the Al-Assad and Erbil airbases in Iraq. It was unclear Tuesday evening if Iran's attack caused any casualties. The Pentagon said it was working to assess the damage. 

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What we know: Trump, Pence have visited U.S. military bases attacked Tuesday by Iranian missiles

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel are expected to face pointed questions from members of the House and Senate about the administration's strategy toward Iran — and whether Trump plans any steps to de-escalate given his stated desire to avoid war.  

Even before Tuesday's developments, Democrats expressed alarm that Trump's decision to kill Soleimani would lead to another war in the Middle East. And they have questioned Pompeo's assertion that Soleimani was planning "imminent" attacks on U.S. troops, which top officials say justified the lethal strike. 

The U.S. killed Soleimani, who led the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, near Baghdad's international airport on Thursday, after a series of smaller confrontations between the U.S. and Iran. Soleimani trained and supported Tehran's lethal proxy forces across the region. Iranian leaders immediately vowed to exact revenge for his death, and they made good on that threat with Tuesday's strikes.

More: Iran OKs bill calling U.S. military, Pentagon terrorists after Soleimani killing

As Trump contemplates a response to Iran's missile attacks, House Democrats are expected to vote on a war powers resolution to restrict Trump's military actions on Iran as early as Thursday. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. 

Pompeo and other administration officials huddled with Trump at the White House Tuesday night but did not address the latest developments.

Soleimani death: How Trump arrived at the decision to kill a top Iranian general

Before the Iranian missile strikes, Trump and top administration officials spent much of Tuesday defending the strike on Soleimani. 

"His past was horrible. He was a terrorist," Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday. "And we saved a lot of lives by terminating his life, a lot of lives were saved. They were planning something and you're going to be hearing about it or at least various people in Congress are going to be hearing about it tomorrow.”

Members of Congress have already started raising questions about the Trump administration’s justification for the strike on Soleimani — namely Pompeo’s insistence that the Iranian general was on the verge of orchestrating attacks that would have killed hundreds of Americans. If anything, Democrats say, the strike has increased the likelihood that Americans will be targeted and killed.

Mike Pompeo wearing a suit and tie: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, hands off the microphone to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to deliver a statement on Iraq and Syria, at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago property, on Dec. 29, 2019, in Palm Beach, Fla. © Evan Vucci, AP Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, hands off the microphone to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to deliver a statement on Iraq and Syria, at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago property, on Dec. 29, 2019, in Palm Beach, Fla. “We have seen as senators no evidence that the assassination of Soleimani was necessary to prevent an imminent attack on the United States. I remain open to seeing that intelligence,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., said in a floor speech Tuesday.

“… But both Presidents Bush and Obama had the ability to kill Soleimani. But they didn’t, because their experts believed that executing the second most powerful political figure in Iran — no matter how evil he was, no matter how many American deaths he was responsible for — would end up getting more, not fewer, Americans killed.”

'We've got to pray': Lawmakers react to Iran's missile strike on US military bases

The Trump administration sent Congress formal notification about the Soleimani attack Saturday, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said prompted “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran.”

How we got here: Qasem Soleimani's killing is the latest in Iran-US tensions

The Soleimani attack has roiled the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of mourners have poured into streets in Iran, and the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for American troops to leave. U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, have been ordered to hunker down in their bases and suspend their mission to defeat Islamic State militants.

Esper has attributed the deaths of hundreds of American troops to weaponry and expertise Soleimani exported to Iraq during the height of the Iraq war.

More recently, Esper blamed Soleimani for promoting rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq by militias supported by Iran. One of those explosions killed an American contractor on Dec. 27, a move that top officials say led to the decision to order the strike on Soleimani.

Esper also cited "exquisite intelligence" that Soleimani was coordinating imminent attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East. The attacks, Esper said, were likely a matter of days, not weeks, from being launched. He referred to Soleimani as a legitimate target on the battlefield.

Slideshow by photo services

What you need to know: The death of Gen. Soleimani and the escalating situation with Iran

National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien made himself available to reporters at the White House early Tuesday, saying that Soleimani was planning to attack American facilities, and to kill "diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines" who were at those places.

"It was strong evidence and strong intelligence, and unfortunately we're not going to be able to get into sources and methods at this time, but I can tell you it was ... it was very strong," O'Brien said.

Robert Malley, a former national security official in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said the claim that Soleimani posed an imminent threat is “particularly questionable.”

Based on his experience working in the White House, Malley said, an imminent threat usually comes from “an operative who's about to plant a bomb” or a terrorist on a suicide mission. Soleimani was the mastermind, not a frontline fighter, so taking him out would not quash an attack.

Pompeo, Esper, Milley and Haspel are scheduled to brief the full House of Representatives at 1 p.m. EST and the Senate at 2:30 p.m. EST. 

Contributing: David Jackson and Michael Collins

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump aides to brief Congress on Iran as Tehran retaliates over killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani

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