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U.S. strike ordered by Trump kills top Iranian military leader, Tehran vows revenge: The Morning Rundown

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed "harsh retaliation" for the killing of Qassem Soleimani.
Image: A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the U.S. airstrike in Iraq, prior to the Friday prayers in Tehran
A boy carries a portrait of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian military commander who was killed by a U.S. airstrike, ahead of Friday prayers in Tehran. Vahid Salemi / AP

Good morning, NBC News readers.

A U.S. airstrike killed a powerful Iranian military general in a significant Mideast escalation. We have full coverage of this major geopolitical development.

U.S. kills top Iranian military leader in strike ordered by Trump

The United States killed Qassem Soleimani, a high-profile commander of Iran's Quds Force, in a targeted airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump, the Pentagon said late Thursday.

The deadly airstrike near Baghdad's airport is expected to dramatically escalate tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which were already heightened by the New Year's attacks on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed "severe revenge" for Soleimani's death on Friday.

  • Who was Soleimani? As the commander of the Quds Force, an elite division of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, he was an incredibly powerful and revered military leader. NBC News' Tehran Bureau Chief Ali Arouzi described Soleimani as the second most powerful man in Iran, after the supreme leader. U.S. officials blame him for the deaths of hundreds of Americans during the war in Iraq.
  • Why now? The Pentagon called the attack a "defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad." The Defense Department said Soleimani had been actively developing plans to attack U.S. diplomats and service members in Iraq and elsewhere throughout the region.
  • What's next? Iran vowed to seek revenge and "harsh retaliation" on the United States for the attack on Friday. Regional experts say the attack has ratcheted up the confrontation between the two countries to a level not seen since the 1979 hostage crisis. U.S. law enforcement is already on guard for potential retaliation.
  • U.S. political reaction: Democrats immediately cried foul after Trump unilaterally carried out the military strike without Congressional approval. While Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised Trump's move as "bold action against Iranian aggression."
  • Oil prices surged Friday as global investors were gripped with uncertainty over the potential repercussions of the attack.
  • Analysis: Trump has repeatedly railed against America’s "endless wars" and vowed to bring U.S. troops home. But Thursday's strike risks embroiling the U.S. in yet another conflict.

Australia wildfires rage as another state declares disaster

More than 100 wildfires continued to engulf parts of eastern Australia on Thursday, as the country braces for more scorching temperatures, strong winds and dry conditions into the weekend.

Over 12 million acres have been scorched, almost twice the size of New Jersey. And at least 17 people, including three volunteer firefighters, have died since the fires broke out. See a map of how the wildfires have spread over the past 32 days.

"These fires are not just the worst in my living memory, but the worst in recorded history," said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

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Meantime, Julián Castro announced that he was dropping out of the 2020 presidential race on Thursday.

While he was always a long shot, Castro's candidacy gave Latinos a boost and Democrats a push, NBC News' Suzanne Gamboa writes in an analysis of his run.

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Quote of the day

"We need to presume that we are in a state of war with Iran."

Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS, on the ramifications of the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani.

One fun thing

The news may be grim today, but the holidays are hardly over. Take a look back at the week in pictures.

A woman celebrates as she watches the traditional New Year's fireworks at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Dec. 31, 2019.Daniel Ramalho / AFP - Getty Images

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Thanks, Petra