NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump ordered the killing of an Iranian general, and now the question is, how might Iran respond? In a few minutes, we'll talk to a former national security adviser to Presidents Bush and Obama. But first, let's learn what happened exactly. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is with us in the studio. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. strike at the Baghdad airport. We know that. What other details do we have?
MYRE: So his plane had just landed. The reports are that it came from either Syria or Lebanon. It's not quite clear. And there were a couple cars waiting for him on the tarmac. So he got in one of those cars and was leaving the airport when he was hit by this airstrike, apparently a drone, although the Pentagon has not confirmed that. It turned his car into a fireball. And now, with such a prominent figure killed in this manner, we're waiting to see what happens next.
KING: A prominent figure, let's talk more about that. Who was General Soleimani, and why was he so influential?
MYRE: Well, he's clearly the most important prominent Iranian military figure and one of the most important people in the country. He was 62, a military man all his life. And for more than 20 years, he led the Quds Force. And this - think of this as, like, U.S. Special Forces operating throughout the region. And he would pop up on battlefields in his military fatigues. He didn't say a lot, but he was the face of these Iranian operations in the Middle East. And from a U.S. perspective, I think what's really important is militias he worked with in Iraq have been blamed for killing hundreds of Americans, often the figure is tossed around 600 Americans, in Iraq since the U.S. invasion there in 2003.
KING: OK. A man who is very popular in Iran, not popular in the United States. We would assume, Greg, that the U.S. had him - had tracked his movements and knew where he was. Why then did this happen now and not months ago, years ago?
MYRE: You know, we're - I think what we're seeing is sort of the outcome of President Trump's maximum pressure campaign. He pulled out of the nuclear deal. He sanctioned Iranian oil exports. And so since last summer, we've seen these escalating acts. Iran has been punching back. They've either been blamed for or acknowledge attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, shooting down a U.S. drone. There's been these rocket attacks on Iraqi bases and a U.S. contractor was killed a week ago. And apparently, for President Trump, this was the line that was crossed and led him to act.
KING: Do we know who will replace Soleimani?
MYRE: Yes. We've already got an answer. His name is Esmail Ghaani. He was the No. 2 to Qassem Soleimani. And Iran's supreme leader put out a statement saying that he'll take over and that the program for the for the Quds Force will be unchanged, which means they will presumably continue operating in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon.
KING: OK. NPR national correspondent - national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.
MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.