BAGHDAD—Amid calls for revenge, funeral processions were held early Saturday for Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a powerful Iraqi militia leader, who were killed by an American drone strike on the orders of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Thousands of mourners joined the procession, waving Iraqi flags and the banners of the Iraqi paramilitary forces that are backed by Iran and known collectively as the Hashd al-Shaabi. As the mourners set out from the Baghdad neighbourhood of Kadhimiyah, officials from Iraq and Iran, along with militia leaders, were seen making their way through the throngs flanked by burly guards.
Helicopters shadowed the crowds. “Death to America, death to Israel,” people chanted. “We will take our revenge!”
Iran has vowed to retaliate against the United States for the killing of Soleimani, Tehran’s most powerful military commander, and the Trump administration has said it is sending thousands of new troops to the Middle East. The looming confrontation has left the region bracing for an escalation of violence, and Iraq, caught between its allies in Tehran and Washington, fears the country will be at the centre of the storm.
An Iranian commander quoted by the Tasnim News Agency on Saturday suggested that dozens of American facilities and military assets in the Middle East were at risk, along with Israel, a key U.S. ally.
“Thirty-five vital American positions in the region are within the reach of the Islamic Republic, and Tel Aviv,” the commander, Gholamali Abuhamzeh, was quoted as saying. “The Strait of Hormuz is a vital thoroughfare for the West, and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross the Strait of Hormuz, the Sea of Oman and the Persian Gulf,” he added.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State group said that “we have increased security and defensive measures at the Iraqi bases that host anti-ISIS coalition troops. Our command places protection of U.S. Forces, as well as our allies and security partners in the coalition, as the top priority; we remain vigilant and resolute.”
The Pentagon said Friday that it was preparing to deploy an additional 3,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division to the region. According to two defence officials, the military also has put hundreds of soldiers from the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy on alert for potential deployment.
Trump told reporters Friday that the United States killed Soleimani in a bid to “stop a war.” The president, speaking at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, urged Iran not to retaliate. “We did not take action to start a war,” he said.
The drone attack, early Friday local time, struck a two-car convoy on an access road near Baghdad International Airport and also killed several of Soleimani’s local allies. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called the attack “an assassination” that was in “flagrant violation of the conditions authorizing the presence of U.S. troops” on Iraqi soil.
Soleimani joined Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a young man and took control of the Quds Force, its special operations wing, in the late 1990s. Under his command, the force built alliances across the region by paying for weapons and providing strategic guidance. Soleimani was regularly photographed on visits to affiliated militias in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, burnishing his reputation as a talismanic operator with influence across the Middle East.
The U.S. strike killed some of the Quds Force’s key allies, including Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, a powerful Iraqi militia leader better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the Hashd al-Shaabi militias. Ibrahimi is being buried in the sacred Shiite city of Najaf later on Saturday, officials said, and Soleimani’s body was scheduled to be flown back to Iran for burial there.
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The funeral procession on Friday was “an opportunity,” said a young militiaman wearing a camouflage hat, interviewed on local Iraqi television. “The resistance is united, against the enemies of Islam, and the enemies of humanity,” he said, singling out the United States.
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