TEHRAN: President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during commemorations marking 41 years since the Islamic Revolution in the capital Tehran’s Azadi Square. – AFP

WASHINGTON: More than 100 US troops sustained “mild” traumatic brain injury, far more than originally announced, when Iran launched missiles at their base in Iraq last month, the Department of Defense said Monday. “As of today, 109 US service members have been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, or mTBI, an increase of 45 since the previous report,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Of them, 76 have returned to duty while most of the rest are still undergoing evaluation and treatment. President Donald Trump had initially said that no Americans were injured in the strike on the Ain Al-Asad base in western Iraq on the night of January 7-8, although authorities later reported that 11 troops were injured.

Iran fired ballistic missiles at the base to retaliate for the January 3 US drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani while he was in Baghdad. Trump was understood to downplay the impact on US troops to help ratchet down tensions between the two countries, amid concerns that a full war could break out. It was only a week later that reports surfaced that US troops had experienced concussions and other brain injuries.

But the US leader then dismissed the reported injuries as “headaches” and “not very serious.” “We are grateful to the efforts of our medical professionals who have worked diligently to ensure the appropriate level of care for our service members, which has enabled nearly 70 percent of those diagnosed to return to duty,” said Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah in a statement Monday. “We must continue to address physical and mental health together,” she said.

Iran taunts US
Meanwhile, Iran taunted the United States on the 41st anniversary yesterday of the ouster of its ally the shah, as huge crowds took to the streets to mark the historic occasion. Waving national flags and holding portraits of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the crowds converged on Tehran’s iconic Azadi Square braving sub-zero temperatures.

“It is unbearable for the United States to accept the victory of a great nation and that a superpower has been driven out of this land,” President Hassan Rouhani told the gathering. “It is natural for them to have dreamt, for 41 years, of returning to this land, because they know that we are one of the most powerful countries” in the Middle East, he added.

Tehran and Washington have been sworn enemies since 1979, when the government of the US-backed shah was ousted and the Islamic republic established. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had already fled the country weeks earlier after months of protests against his regime. That November radical students demanding the shah’s extradition seized 52 hostages at the US embassy in Tehran and held them for 444 days, prompting Washington to sever ties.

The bad blood between Tehran and Washington worsened in 2018 when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a deal that froze Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed crippling sanctions. In the capital, the atmosphere was mixed, with some people casually strolling the streets with their children clutching balloons and others chanting hardline slogans and trampling on US and Israeli flags. “Death to America” and “We will resist until the end”, read some of the banners they carried.

Show of unity
Women in black chadors held portraits of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani, a hugely popular general killed in a US drone strike last month. Young men posed for selfies in front of a row of coffins draped in US flags and bearing the logos of companies seen as symbols of American imperialism. Girls marched with backpacks bearing Soleimani’s face as patriotic songs and Koranic verses were played on loudspeakers and volunteers dished out bowls of soup to keep people warm.

“I’m here to support the authority of the Islamic republic,” one participant, Yasser Mohammadi, 37, told AFP. “Maybe we have some problems internally, like the economy and mismanagement, but this won’t stop us supporting our Islamic republic. “We want to show the world that what the US is doing is wrong, including the killing of Soleimani.” State television showed crowds on the streets of the northern cities of Rasht and Tabriz, dressed in woolly scarves and hats and holding umbrellas, seemingly undeterred by heavy snowfall.

The state had appealed for a large turnout as a show of solidarity after a year in which Iran has been shaken by protests and military tensions with the United States. “Securing our country and our region depends on our unity, and participation in this rally is a symbol of this unity,” said Hadi Khamenei, brother of the supreme leader. Iran’s economy has been battered since May 2018, when Trump abandoned the multilateral nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions.

Crucial elections
When Iran raised petrol prices in November, nationwide protests erupted and turned violent before security forces put them down amid a near-total internet blackout. Tensions with Washington escalated in early January when the US killed Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force. Iran retaliated by targeting US forces but then accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people on board, in a tragedy that sparked anger at home and abroad. This year’s anniversary comes ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in Iran.

In another development, Iraqi officials yesterday commemorated Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the senior commander killed in last month’s US drone strike that targeted powerful Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Muhandis was the deputy head of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a loose network of paramilitary groups formed in 2014 to fight jihadists that has since been absorbed into the Iraqi state.

He, Soleimani and eight others were killed in the January 3 US strike outside Baghdad’s International Airport that Iraq’s government slammed as a violation of its sovereignty. To mark 40 days since their deaths, a tradition in the Middle East, top officials held a memorial service in Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.

Hashed chief Faleh Fayyadh, who also serves as Iraq’s national security adviser, attended as did the country’s military chief of staff and interior minister. “The great crime committed near Baghdad airport against the commanders of victory (was) a crime against humanity, against Iraq, against our sovereignty and the defense of our children,” Fayyadh told those gathered. “The blood of these martyrs, in my opinion, will re-establish this Hashed … May we be a thorn in the eye of anyone wishing to deprive Iraq of its sovereignty.”

Security threat
Soleimani, as head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force, ran Iran’s overseas military operations and was Tehran’s pointman on Iraqi affairs. Muhandis was close to Iran and working with his mentor and friend Soleimani to broker deals among Iraq’s fractured political elite. The US considered Soleimani a national security threat, and Trump authorized the drone strike on the two-car convoy in which Soleimani was travelling outside of Baghdad airport. – Agencies