BAGHDAD • Tens of thousands of people marched in Baghdad yesterday to mourn Iran's military chief Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, killed in a US air strike that has raised the spectre of wider conflict in the Middle East.
By ordering Friday's air strike on the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' foreign legions, US President Donald Trump has taken Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in its confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias.
General Gholamali Abuhamzeh, a senior commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, said Teheran would punish Americans "wherever they are in reach".
The US Embassy in Baghdad urged American citizens to leave Iraq, following the strike at Baghdad airport that killed Major-General Soleimani.
Close US ally Britain warned its nationals yesterday to avoid all travel to Iraq, outside the autonomous Kurdistan region, and to avoid all but essential travel to Iran.
Maj-Gen Soleimani, 62, was Teheran's pre-eminent military commander and - as head of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards - the architect of Iran's spreading influence in the Middle East. Mr Muhandis was the deputy commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.
An elaborate, PMF-organised procession carrying the bodies of Maj-Gen Soleimani, Mr Muhandis and other Iraqis killed in the US strike took place in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
On Friday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed vengeance against the "criminals" who killed Maj-Gen Soleimani.
Here are some of Iran's options:
BLOCKING THE STRAIT OF HORMUZ
Gen Abuhamzeh, the Revolutionary Guards commander in Kerman province, mentioned a series of possible targets for reprisals including the Gulf waterway through which a significant proportion of shipborne oil is exported to global markets.
Teheran could use its missiles and drones, mines, speedboats and missile launchers in the Gulf area to confront the US and its allies.
"The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there," Gen Abuhamzeh was quoted as saying by news agency Tasnim. "Vital American targets in the region have long since been identified by Iran... Some 35 US targets... as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach," he said, referring to Israel's largest city.
The US Energy Information Administration estimated that 76 per cent of the crude oil and condensate that moved through the chokepoint went to Asian markets in 2018, with Singapore being Asia's largest destinations for crude oil moving through Hormuz.
IRAN'S TACTICS AND PROXIES
A senior figure in Lebanon's heavily armed Hizbollah movement said retaliation by the Iran-backed "axis of resistance" to Maj-Gen Solei-mani's killing would be decisive, al-Mayadeen TV reported yesterday. Mr Mohamed Raad, leader of Hizbollah's parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, was referring to Iranian-aligned militias from Lebanon to Yemen that have bolstered Teheran's military clout.
Iran has passed on its drones and technical expertise to its allies. Yemen's Houthis have used Iran-made arms to bomb airports in Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional foe. Iran-backed militias in Iraq have used mortars and rockets to attack bases where US forces are located. In June, Iran came close to war with the US after Teheran downed a US drone with a surface-to-air missile, a move that nearly triggered retaliatory strikes.
The possibility of a military confrontation cannot be ruled out, but Mr Khamenei faces a dilemma. If he calls for restraint, he could look weak at home and among proxies who have expanded Iran's reach. For this reason, Iran may choose to opt for a smaller-scale retaliation.
Mr Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Twitter that Mr Khamenei must carefully calibrate the reaction.
"A weak response risks losing face, an excessive response risks losing his head. Khamenei is Trump's most consequential international adversary in 2020."
However, Iran is unlikely to rush into action, said Mr Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "Iran has no choice but to strike back and retaliate assassination of Major-Gen Soleimani," he said. "But the Islamic Republic is patient and the timing and nature of that strike is not yet known to us."
IRAN'S LONG REACH
Iran and its allies have proven they have a long reach. In 1994, an Iran-backed Hizbollah member drove a van with explosives to the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society building, killing 85 people. Argentina blames Iran and Hizbollah for the attack. Both deny any responsibility.
US and Argentine officials say Hizbollah operates in what is known as the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, where an illicit economy funds its operations. "What is more likely is sustained proxy attacks against US interests and allies regionally and even globally," Carnegie's Mr Sadjadpour wrote on Twitter. "Iran has a long history of such attacks in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, with mixed success."