BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of mourners marched in a funeral procession yesterday through Baghdad for Iran’s top general and Iraqi militant leaders, who were killed in a United States (US) airstrike.
The head of Iran’s elite Quds force and mastermind of its regional security strategy General Qassem Soleimani was killed in an airstrike early on Friday near the Iraqi capital’s international airport that has caused regional tensions to soar.
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 (IS) group.
The mourners, mostly men in black military fatigues, carried Iraqi flags and the flags of Iran-backed militias that are fiercely loyal to Soleimani. They were also mourning Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi militia commander who was killed in the same strike.
The procession began at the Imam Kadhim shrine in Baghdad, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam. Mourners marched in the streets alongside militia vehicles in a solemn procession.
The mourners, many of them in tears, chanted “No, No, America”. 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.
Two helicopters hovered over the procession, which was attended by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and leaders of Iran-backed militias.
The gates to Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the US Embassy, were closed.
Every major newspaper and state-controlled TV broadcast focussed on Soleimani’s death, with even reformist newspapers like Aftab-e Yazd warning that “revenge is on the way.” Billboards have appeared on major streets showing Soleimani’s face, many carrying the warning from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that “harsh revenge” awaits the US.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate in the country’s political establishment, visited Soleimani’s home in Tehran to express his condolences. “The Americans did not realise what a great mistake they made,” Rouhani said. “They will see the effects of this criminal act, not only today but for years to come.”
Iraq, which is closely allied with both Washington and Tehran, condemned the airstrike that killed Soleimani and called it an attack on its national sovereignty. Parliament is to meet for an emergency session today, 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 Islamic State (IS) group.
The killing of Soleimani comes after months of rising tensions between the US and Iran stemming from Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and restore crippling sanctions.
The US 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 last September that temporarily halved its production.
Iran denied involvement in those attacks, but admitted to shooting down a US surveillance drone last June that it said had strayed into its airspace.