Rockets hit Baghdad after day of mourning for slain Iranian commander Soleimani

Mourners carry the coffin of Iran's top general Qassem Soleimani during his funeral in Karbala, Iraq, on Jan 4, 2020. PHOTO: AP

BAGHDAD (AP) - Thousands of militiamen and other supporters chanting "America is the Great Satan" marched in a funeral procession on Saturday (Jan 4) in Baghdad for Iran's top general after he was killed in a United States air strike, as the region braced for the Islamic Republic to fulfil its vows of revenge.

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force and mastermind of its regional security strategy, was killed early last Friday near the Baghdad international airport along with senior Iraqi militants in an air strike ordered by President Donald Trump.

The attack has caused regional tensions to soar and tested the US alliance with Iraq.

Iran has vowed harsh retaliation, raising fears of an all-out war, but it is unclear how or when it might respond. Any retaliation is likely to come after three days of mourning declared in both Iran and Iraq. All eyes are on Iraq, where the US and Iran have competed for influence since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Mr Trump says he ordered the strike, a high-risk decision that was made without consulting Congress or US allies, to prevent a conflict.

US officials say Maj-Gen Soleimani was plotting a series of attacks that endangered American troops and officials, without providing evidence.

Maj-Gen Soleimani was the architect of Iran's regional policy of mobilising militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, including in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. He was also blamed for attacks on US troops and American allies going back decades.

After the Friday strike, the US-led coalition scaled back operations and boosted "security and defensive measures" at bases hosting coalition forces in Iraq, a coalition official said on the condition of anonymity according to regulations.

Meanwhile, the US has dispatched another 3,000 troops to neighbouring Kuwait, the latest in a series of deployments in recent months as the stand-off with Iran worsened.

In a thinly veiled threat, one of the Iran-backed militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, called on Iraqi security forces to stay at least 1,000m away from US bases starting Sunday night.

"The leaders of the security forces should protect their fighters and not allow them to become human shields to the occupying Crusaders," the warning statement said, in reference to the coalition bases.

Later on Saturday evening, a series of rockets were launched and fell inside or near the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the US Embassy.

No one was injured by a Katyusha rocket that fell inside a square less than 1km from the embassy, according to an Iraqi security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.

Another rocket in Baghdad landed about 500m from As-Salam palace where Iraqi President Barham Salih normally stays in Jadriya, a neighborhood adjacent to the Green Zone, the official said. Another security official said three rockets fell outside an air base north of Baghdad where American contractors are normally present.

The rockets landed outside the base in a farm area and there were no reports of damage, according to the official.

Also on Saturday, a spokesman for the Iraqi armed forces said the movement of coalition forces, including US troops, in the air and on the ground will be restricted, conditioned on receiving approval from Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the commander in chief of the armed forces.

It was not immediately clear what the new restrictions would mean, given that coalition troops were already subject to limitations and had to be coordinated with the Joint Operation Command of top Iraqi military commanders.

Iraq's government, which is closely allied with Iran, condemned the airstrike that killed Maj-Gen Soleimani, calling it an attack on its national sovereignty.

Parliament is meeting for an emergency session Sunday, and the government has come under mounting pressure to expel the 5,200 American troops based in the country, who are there to help prevent a resurgence of the ISIS group.

In Baghdad, thousands of mourners at Saturday's ceremony, mostly men in black military fatigues, carried Iraqi flags and the flags of Iran-backed militias that are fiercely loyal to Maj-Gen Soleimani.

They were also grieving senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed in the same strike.

The mourners, many of them in tears, chanted "No, No, America", and "Death to America, death to Israel".

Mr Mohammed Fadl, a mourner dressed in black, said the funeral is an expression of loyalty to the slain leaders. "It is a painful strike, but it will not shake us," he said.

Helicopters hovered over the procession, which was attended by Mr Abdul-Mahdi and leaders of Iran-backed militias. The procession later made its way to the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, where the mourners raised red flags associated with unjust bloodshed and revenge. The slain Iraqi militants will be buried in Najaf, while Maj-Gen Soleimani's remains will be taken to Iran.

More funeral services will be held for Maj-Gen Soleimani in Iran on Sunday and Monday, before his body is laid to rest in his hometown of Kerman.

Mr Hadi al-Amiri, who heads a large parliamentary bloc and is expected to replace Mr al-Muhandis as deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed militias, was among those paying their final respects in Baghdad.

"Rest assured," he said before Mr al-Muhandis' coffin in a video circulated on social media. "The price of your pure blood will be the exit of US forces from Iraq forever."

The US has ordered all its citizens to leave Iraq and temporarily closed its embassy in Baghdad, where Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters staged two days of violent protests earlier this week, in which they breached the compound.

Britain and France have warned their citizens to avoid or strictly limit travel in Iraq. No one was hurt in the embassy protests, which came in response to US air strikes that killed 25 Iran-backed militiamen in Iraq and Syria.

The US blamed the militia for a rocket attack that killed a US contractor in northern Iraq.

Tensions between the US and Iran have steadily intensified since Mr Trump's decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and restore crippling sanctions, which have devastated Iran's economy and contributed to recent protests there in which hundreds were reportedly killed.

The administration's "maximum pressure" campaign has led Iran to openly abandon commitments under the deal. The US has also blamed Iran for a wave of increasingly provocative attacks in the region, including the sabotage of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and an attack on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure in September that temporarily halved its production.

Iran denied involvement in those attacks, but admitted to shooting down a US surveillance drone in June, saying it had strayed into its airspace.

Billboards and images of Maj-Gen Soleimani, who was widely seen as a national icon and a hero of the so-called Axis of Resistance against Western hegemony, appeared on major streets in Iran on Saturday with the warning from the supreme leader that "harsh revenge" awaits the US.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Maj-Gen Soleimani's home in Teheran to express his condolences.

"The Americans did not realise what a great mistake they made," Mr Rouhani said. "They will see the effects of this criminal act, not only today but for years to come."

On the streets of Teheran, many mourned Maj-Gen Soleimani.

"I don't think there will be a war, but we must get his revenge," said Mr Hojjat Sanieefar. "(America) can't hit and run anymore," he added.

Another man, who identified himself only as Amir, was worried. "If there is a war, I am 100% sure it will not be to our betterment. The situation will certainly get worse," he said.

In an apparent effort to defuse tensions, Qatar foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani made an unplanned trip to Iran where he met Mr Rouhani and other senior officials.

Qatar, which has often served as a regional mediator, hosts American forces at the Al-Udeid Air Base and shares a massive offshore oil and gas field with Iran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meanwhile said he had spoken with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of the United Arab Emirates. "I reaffirmed that the US remains committed to de-escalation," Mr Pompeo tweeted.

In a sign of his regional reach, supporters in Lebanon hung billboards commemorating Maj-Gen Soleimani in Beirut's southern suburbs and in southern Lebanon along the disputed border with Israel, according to the state-run National News Agency. Both are strongholds of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, whose leader, Mr Hassan Nasrallah, has close ties to Maj-Gen Soleimani.

A portrait of Mr Nasrallah could be seen in Maj-Gen Soleimani's home when mourners paid tribute there. Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, including the territory's Hamas rulers, opened a mourning site for the slain general and dozens gathered to burn American and Israeli flags.

Iran has long provided aid to the armed wing of Hamas and to the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group. The killing of Maj-Gen Soleimani was "a loss for Palestine and the resistance", said senior Hamas official Ismail Radwan.

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