BAGHDAD: Tens of thousands of Iraqis, many chanting “Death to America” yesterday mourned a top Iranian commander and others killed in a US drone attack that sparked fears of a regional proxy war between Washington and Tehran. The killing of Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani on Friday was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiraling tensions between Iran and the United States, which pledged to send thousands more troops to the region.
Iraqi political leaders and clerics attended the mass ceremony to honor 62-year-old Soleimani and the other nine victim of the predawn attack on Baghdad international airport. US and Israeli flags were also set alight in Iran’s capital yesterday as thousands mourned the loss of Soleimani. US President Donald Trump said he had decided to “terminate” Iran’s military mastermind to prevent an “imminent” attack on US diplomats and troops. “We took action last night to stop a war,” he insisted. “We did not take action to start a war.”
But a furious Iran has vowed revenge for the killing of Soleimani, the chief architect of its military operations across the Middle East. “The response for a military action is a military action,” Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi told CNN, calling the strike an “act of war”. “By whom, by when, where? That is for the future to witness.”
In the hours after the strike, the US reached out to Iran, with which it has had no direct diplomatic ties for decades. Switzerland, whose embassy in Tehran represents US interests, confirmed yesterday its charge d’affaires had on Friday been “informed of Iran’s position and in turn delivered the message of the United States”.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said Washington had used “diplomatic measures” to urge Tehran to respond “in proportion” to the strike – a message Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed as “foolish”. They “even said that if you want to get revenge, get revenge in proportion to what we did”, the Guard’s Rear-Admiral Ali Fadavi said on Iranian state television. But Fadavi said the United States was not in a position “to determine” Iran’s response. “The Americans must await severe revenge. This revenge will not be limited to Iran,” he said. “The ‘Resistance Front’, with a vast geography, is ready to materialize this revenge,” he added, referring to Iran’s allies across the Middle East.
The Swiss official “was summoned in the evening and received a decisive response in writing… to the Americans’ audacious letter,” Zarif said. Zarif also spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, who argued that “the dangerous US military operation violates the basic norms of international relations and will aggravate regional tensions and turbulence,” according to Chinese media.
The strike killed a total of five Iranian Guards and five members of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network, whose members have close ties to Tehran. Among the dead was the Hashed’s deputy Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, who was a top adviser and personal friend to Soleimani. Late yesterday, two rockets hit Iraq’s Al-Balad air base, where US troops are stationed, while two mortars hit Baghdad’s Green Zone, a high-security enclave housing the US embassy, security sources said. Sirens immediately rang out at the American compound in Baghdad hosting both diplomats and troops, sources there told AFP. The Al-Balad base, north of Baghdad, was hit by Katyusha rockets, security sources said.
Mass ceremonies started in Baghdad yesterday for the dead, with Iraq’s caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi and top pro-Iran figures in large crowds accompanying the coffins. They were first brought to a revered Shiite shrine in northern Baghdad, where thousands of mourners chanted “Death to America!” Dressed in black, they waved white Hashed flags and massive portraits of Iranian and Iraqi leaders, furiously calling for “revenge”.
The remains were then moved to the shrine city of Karbala and would ultimately end up in Najaf, where the Iraqis will be buried. The Guards’ remains would be flown to Iran, which has declared three days of mourning and religious rituals. “We are with you,” mourners chanted as they waved their hands in unison during the outpouring of grief at a rally in Tehran’s Palestine Square, an AFP correspondent reported.
Men held up placards that called for “revenge” and black-clad women clutched portraits of Soleimani and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One man wearing a mask climbed onto a stone monument holding burning US and Israeli flags as others chanted “Death to America”. “Our response will definitely be beyond launching some missiles or destroying some American bases,” said Milad Najafi, one of the mourners. “In fact, I think our revenge will be the annihilation of Israel,” the student told AFP.
Another mourner, Ali Gholinam, paid tribute to Soleimani as “the greatest man we had”. “They took him not only from Iran but from the ‘Resistance Front’,” he said, referring to Iran’s allies in parts of the region including the Palestinian territories. “The ‘Resistance Front’ members are now mourning this great man,” he told AFP. “I don’t know what the response could be, but whatever it may be, it must be proportionate.”
As head of the Guards’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, Soleimani was a powerful figure domestically and oversaw Iran’s wide-ranging interventions in regional power struggles. He had long been considered a lethal foe by Washington, with Trump saying he should have been killed “many years ago”. Tehran has already named Soleimani’s deputy, Esmail Qaani, to replace him. His first order of business was made clear Friday when Khamenei promised “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death.
Iraqis worry the US strike could unleash a new wave of destabilization for Iraq, which only two years ago announced it had defeated the Islamic State group. Abdel Mahdi warned Friday it would “spark a devastating war in Iraq”, while President Barham Saleh pleaded for “voices of reason” to prevail. Yesterday, the Hashed said a new strike had hit a convoy of their forces north of Baghdad, with Iraqi state media blaming the US. But US-led coalition spokesman Myles Caggins denied involvement, telling AFP: “There was no American or coalition strike.”
Amid the tensions, the Pentagon said up to 3,500 additional US troops would be dispatched to Iraq’s neighbor Kuwait, to boost some 14,000 reinforcements already deployed to the region last year. About 5,200 US troops are stationed across Iraq to help fight IS. They have faced a spate of rocket attacks that the US has blamed on pro-Iran factions and which last month killed an American contractor.
As a result of the tensions, NATO said it was suspending its training activities in Iraq and a US defense official told AFP that American-led coalition forces would “limit” operations. “Our first priority is protecting coalition personnel,” the official said, adding that the main focus of surveillance had shifted from IS to watching for incoming rocket attacks. Iraq’s defense ministry had not been informed of the changes, its spokesman told AFP yesterday.
US citizens were meanwhile urged to leave Iraq immediately and American staff were evacuated from oil fields in the south. Iraq’s pro-Iran factions have seized on Soleimani’s death to push parliament, which convenes today, to revoke the security agreement allowing US forces on Iraqi soil. While praying over Muhandis’ remains in Baghdad, top Hashed official Hadi Al-Ameri pledged to avenge him by ousting US troops. “Be reassured that the price of your pure blood will be the departure of American troops from Iraq, forever,” he said. – Agencies