A vehicle hit by a missile outside Baghdad International Airport Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/Associated Press

President Trump ordered a U.S. airstrike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the foreign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in an attack that is expected to stoke heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran and inflame frictions in the volatile Middle East.

Top Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes was killed alongside Gen. Soleimani when the convoy they were traveling in together was struck on a road leading to Baghdad International Airport.

Gen. Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region, the U.S. Department of Defense said Thursday night.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared three days of mourning for his death and warned that a “hard revenge awaits criminals.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the strike an “act of international terrorism” and said Tehran would “exhaust all its political, legal and international capacities…to hold the terrorist and criminal regime of the United States responsible regarding this obvious crime.”

The killing of the two men is likely to mark the beginning of a dangerous new chapter in the rivalry between the U.S. and Iran, which escalated after supporters of an Iran-backed Shiite militia attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week. Mr. Mohandes was deputy leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group that led the embassy attack.

Gen. Soleimani’s death will deprive Iran of a charismatic and effective leader who managed Iran’s network across the Middle East, but it also significantly raises the chances of a major military confrontation between Washington and Tehran and its proxies throughout the Middle East.

“The killing of Qassem Soleimani is one of the biggest developments in the Middle East for decades,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “His death is a serious loss for Iran’s regional agenda, but his ‘martyrdom’ will likely fuel a response that will, at least in the medium term, make up for his death.”

Tensions with Iran have risen since the U.S. in 2018 pulled out of a deal that curbed Tehran’s nuclear program and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. In April 2019, the Trump administration listed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, and later canceled waivers for Iran’s remaining oil customers, intensifying frictions between the two countries.

With Iran’s economy under pressure from the curbed sales of crude, oil tankers were sabotaged off the Iranian southern coast. The U.S. has blamed Iran for the attacks, which Tehran denies.

The strike that killed Gen. Soleimani was the second major military operation President Trump has ordered in the Middle East in recent months. In October, Mr. Trump approved the raid in Idlib province, Syria, that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader.

The attack against the Iranian commander, however, was much more of a gamble. In the case of Baghdadi, the U.S. killed a militant whose caliphate had already collapsed and who was in hiding.

The killing of Gen. Soleimani is a blow to a nation that is under economic pressure from U.S. sanctions but which still has a network of proxies throughout the Middle East region, is experienced in terrorism, according to U.S. analysts, and whose navy and missiles force is deployed in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

The Pentagon had already announced it was sending about 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., to Kuwait as a standby force if security took a turn for the worse in Iraq.

The U.S. has about 5,000 troops in Iraq. An additional 4,000 troops could be deployed to the region within days, Pentagon officials said earlier Thursday, and thousands more are under potential consideration.

“At the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani,” the Pentagon said.

Mr. Mohandes was the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces that attacked the embassy. The group is an umbrella for dozens of militias, many of them Shiite, comprising about 140,000 members that are part of the Iraqi security apparatus. The U.S. accused Iran of being behind the attack on the embassy.

A former adviser to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said Gen. Soleimani’s death would be met by stark Iranian retaliation. “It’s going to be ugly,” he said, while adding he had no independent confirmation of the commander’s death.

An official at Iran’s delegation at the United Nations in New York didn’t return a request for comment.

Unverified photographs from the scene showed the wreckage of two vehicles on fire and human remains. There was no visible crater or sign of impact on the road where the vehicles were hit.

In this Feb. 11, 2016, photo, Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign wing, attended an annual rally in Tehran commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

The attempt to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday came after the U.S. conducted airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah over the weekend, accusing the group of a series of rocket attacks targeting bases where American forces are stationed.

Gen. Soleimani has been a frequent visitor to Baghdad in recent months.

Supporters of an Iran-backed militia lit fires along the compound wall of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Tuesday, as a backlash intensified against deadly U.S. airstrikes targeting the group. Photo Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press

The airstrike eliminates Washington’s principal nemesis in the Middle East.

A gray-haired commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps whose mission was to support revolutionary movements in the Middle East, Gen. Soleimani had the backing of Mr. Khamenei and oversaw Iran’s shadow wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

It was the Quds Force that armed and trained Iraqi Shiite militias that killed hundreds of U.S. troops during the American war in Iraq. And it was Gen. Soleimani who oversaw Tehran’s efforts to help President Bashar al-Assad prevail in Syria’s civil war.

The U.S. conducted airstrikes Sunday against Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria. Photo: U.S. Air Forces Central Command

Gen. Soleimani first made a reputation for himself in Tehran’s bloody eight-year war with Iraq, and was selected in the late 1990s to command the Quds Force.

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Gen. Soleimani oversaw the mission of harassing the American military and driving U.S. forces out of Iraq. More than 600 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq by Shiite-militias armed and trained by Iran, the Pentagon has said.

In its statement Thursday, the Pentagon said Gen. Soleimani had “orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months,” including a rocket attack Friday in which a U.S. defense contractor was killed.

Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces of Iraq, described Gen. Soleimani as “a truly evil figure” in a 2008 letter to Robert Gates, then the defense secretary, and acknowledged the Iranian commander’s extensive influence in Iraqi politics.

Gen. Soleimani’s involvement in Iraqi politics only expanded in recent years.

“He moved in and out of Baghdad as if he was untouchable,” said Ramzy Mardini, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “That may have been the basis of his miscalculation. Previous U.S. administrations would not have done something so brazen.”

“Soleimani was the central node managing Iran’s vast network of influence across the Middle East,” Mr. Mardini added. “His elimination will impact the regional chessboard and greatly increases the risk of conflict between the U.S. and Iran.”

Protesters set fire to the Iranian consulate in the Iraqi city of Najaf in a show of anger at Iran’s involvement in Iraqi affairs, the latest demonstration in a monthslong antigovernment uprising. Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images.

Write to Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com and Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com

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