Thousands of Iraqis chanting “Death to America” on Saturday mourned an 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 spiralling 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 honour 62-year-old Soleimani and the other nine victim of the pre-dawn attack on Baghdad international airport, including Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
US President Donald Trump said Friday 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. We did not take action to start a war,” he insisted.
But the strike – which killed four more Iranian Guards and five members of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network — infuriated Iran, whose ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, called it an “act of war” by its arch-enemy.
But US-led coalition spokesman Myles Caggins denied involvement, telling AFP: “There was no American or coalition strike.”
Iraq’s caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi joined Muhandis associate Hadi al-Ameri, Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, former PM Nuri al-Maliki and other pro-Iran figures in large crowds accompanying the coffins.
Dressed in black, they waved white Hashed flags and massive portraits of Iranian and Iraqi leaders, furiously calling for “revenge”.
Soleimani 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.
US Scales Back OPS
Iraqi paramilitary figures including US-blacklisted Qais al-Khazaali and militiaman-turned-politician Moqtada Sadr have called on their fighters to “be ready”.
And, elsewhere in the region, Lebanon’s Tehran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah threatened “punishment for these criminal assassins”.
Amid the tensions, the Pentagon said up to 3,500 additional US troops would be dispatched to Iraq’s southern neighbour Kuwait, to boost some 14,000 reinforcements already deployed to the region last year.
There are approximately 5,200 US troops stationed across Iraq to train Iraqis to fight jihadists.
On Saturday, a US official told AFP the US-led forces were scaling back operations and refocusing surveillance to watch for new rocket attacks.
“Our first priority is protecting coalition personnel,” the official said, saying there would be only “limited” training and anti-jihadist operations for now.
US citizens were meanwhile urged to leave Iraq immediately and American staff were being evacuated from oil fields in the south.
Iraqi lawmakers were to convene in emergency session on Sunday and expected to hold a vote.
Analysts said the US strike, which sent world oil prices soaring, would be a game-changer.