Soleimani killing: US President Donald Trump says assassination 'stopped war'

US President Donald Trump says the killing of Iranian general Quassem Soleimani was critical in preventing a war.

The US Commander-in-Chief spoke on Saturday morning hours after he directed an airstrike on Baghdad's airport which killed Soleimani, the leader of Iran's infamous Quds Force, as well as militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Keeping to similar lines to what the Pentagon released in a statement following the airstrike - which is being seen as a turning point in US-Iran relations and which could trigger a regional war - Trump said the action was needed,

"Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him," the president said.

"We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war."

Trump said the United States was ready to take any action necessary but wasn't looking to change the Iranian regime, which Trump has repeatedly had conflict with.

He also had a message for US enemies.

"We will find you. We will eliminate you. We will always protect American service members."

Roughly 3000 additional soldiers are being sent to the Middle East following Friday's airstrike. 

The White House hasn't specifically stated where Soleimani was planning attacks, but Reuters, citing a senior official, said there were attacks plotted against US diplomats in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Trump-directed attack comes after a week of heightened tension between Iran and the US. Last week, an America contractor in Iraq was killed in a rocket attack which the US has blamed on Iranian-backed militia. In response, the US killed 25 Kataeb Hezbollah fighters, leading militias to attack the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Democrats have criticised Trump's direction to strike, saying it wasn't educated and ordered without the congressional permission. However, sources have told CNN there was a consensus within the President's national security cabinet that based upon intelligence, action was needed. Three sets of White House lawyers also vetted the plan and said Trump did not need authorisation.

Soleimani was seen as one of Iran's most important figures with a close relationship to the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Commentators suggest his killing is the equivalent of killing the vice-President of the US.

The general ran the Iranian Revoluntary Guard Corp's foreign arm, the Quds Force, and has been instrumental in many of Iran's foreign operations, including assisting in Syria during its civil war.

Already, Khamenei has vowed revenge and "harsh vengeance". Al Jazeera has also reported that the new leader of the Quds Force, Ismail Qaani, has promised "bodies of Americans all over the Middle East".

The threatened response has prompted dozens of US citizens in the Iraqi oil city of Basra to flee while the US Embassy in Iraq has told Americans to "depart Iraq immediately" and not approach the embassy. 

Due to its proximity to Iran and as the location of the assassination, Iraq could become a centre of the conflict. Iranian-backed militia are believed to be all over Iraq and attacked the US Embassy last week. 

Protests have also broken out in Iran upon news of Soleimani's death, with scores of people taking to the streets crying.