WASHINGTON • In the chaotic days leading to the death of Major-General Qassem Soleimani - Iran's most powerful commander - top American military officials put the option of killing him, which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq, on the menu they presented to President Donald Trump.
They did not think he would take it.
In the wars waged since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.
After initially rejecting the Soleimani option on Dec 28 and authorising airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia group instead, a few days later Mr Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad, according to US Defence Department and administration officials.
By late Thursday, the President had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned. Mr Trump made the decision, senior officials said last Saturday, despite disputes in the administration about the significance of what some officials said was a new stream of intelligence that warned of threats to US embassies and military personnel in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Maj-Gen Soleimani had just completed a tour of his forces in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and was planning an "imminent" attack that could claim hundreds of lives, those officials said.
"Days, weeks," General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last Friday, when asked how imminent any attacks could be, without offering more detail other than to say that new information about unspecified plotting was "clear and unambiguous".
But some officials voiced scepticism privately about the rationale for a strike on Maj-Gen Soleimani, said to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years.
According to one US official, the new intelligence indicated "a normal Monday in the Middle East" - Dec 30 - and Maj-Gen Soleimani's travels amounted to "business as usual". That official described the intelligence as thin and said that Maj-Gen Soleimani's attack was not imminent because of communications the US had between Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Maj-Gen Soleimani showing that the Ayatollah had not yet approved any plans by the major-general for an attack.
TRUMP ISSUES WARNING
Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have...targeted 52 Iranian sites... those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!
U.S. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, in a tweet aimed at raising the stakes should Teheran follow through on its threats.
I doubt they have the courage to initiate a conflict.
IRAN'S ARMY CHIEF MAJOR-GENERAL ABDOLRAHIM MOUSAVI, on US President Donald Trump's threat to strike 52 targets in Iran.
Trump is a terrorist in a suit. He will learn history very soon that NOBODY can defeat the Great Iranian Nation & Culture.
MR MOHAMMAD JAVAD AZARI JAHROMI, Iran's Information and Telecommunications Minister, in a tweet. Mr Trump, who aides said had on his mind the spectre of the 2012 attacks on the US compound in Benghazi, Libya, became increasingly angry as he watched TV images of pro-Iranian demonstrators storming the embassy. Aides said he worried that no response would look weak after repeated threats by the US.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice-President Mike Pence were two of the most hawkish voices arguing for a response to Iranian aggression, according to administration officials.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Gen Milley declined to comment, but the general's spokesman, Colonel DeDe Halfhill, said that "some of the characterisations being asserted by other sources are false" and that she would not discuss conversations between Gen Milley and the President.
Maj-Gen Soleimani had been in Mr Trump's sights since the beginning of the administration, although it was a Dec 27 rocket attack on an Iraqi military base outside Kirkuk, which left an American civilian contractor dead, that set the killing in motion.
The initial list of options for how to deal with escalating violence against US targets in Iraq included strikes on Iranian ships or missile facilities or against Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq. The Pentagon also tacked on the choice of targeting Maj-Gen Soleimani, mainly to make other options seem reasonable.
Mr Trump chose strikes against three locations in Iraq and two in Syria controlled by the group Kataib Hizbollah.
About two dozen militia fighters were killed.
But the Iranians viewed the strikes as out of proportion to their attack on the Iraqi base, and Iraqis - largely members of Iranian-backed militias - staged violent protests outside the US Embassy in Baghdad.
Mr Trump, who aides said had on his mind the spectre of the 2012 attacks on the US compound in Benghazi, Libya, became increasingly angry as he watched TV images of pro-Iranian demonstrators storming the embassy.
Aides said that he worried that no response would look weak after repeated threats by the US.
When Mr Trump chose the option of killing Maj-Gen Soleimani, top military officials, flabbergasted, were immediately alarmed about the prospect of Iranian retaliatory strikes on US troops in the region. It is unclear if Gen Milley or Mr Esper pushed back on Mr Trump's decision.