Friday 17 January 2020

Iraq vows to expel 'reckless' US after top general killed

- Tensions rise as five Iran-backed militia die after a second airstrike rocks Baghdad within 24 hours

Mourning: A women weeps at a protest in Tehran over the US action. Photo: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Mourning: A women weeps at a protest in Tehran over the US action. Photo: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Josie Ensor and Nick Allen

Iraq vowed last night to expel all American troops from the country, ending its 16-year intervention, in response to the US drone assassination of Iran’s top general.

Another airstrike almost exactly 24 hours after the one that killed Soleimani hit two cars carrying Iran-backed militia north of Baghdad, killing five people, an Iraqi official said. The Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces confirmed the strike, saying it targeted one of its medical convoys near the stadium in Taji, north of Baghdad. The group denied any of its top leaders were killed.

With tensions rising, 3,500 extra US troops were being sent to Kuwait, on top of 750 who arrived there earlier this week, as Iran promised “crushing revenge” over the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

The Pentagon said the troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were being deployed as a “precaution”. The US has sent 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East since May.

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A vehicle on fire after the airstrike. Photo: IRAQI MILITARY/AFP via Getty Images
A vehicle on fire after the airstrike. Photo: IRAQI MILITARY/AFP via Getty Images

The US was braced for potential cyber attacks from Iran and extra security measures were being taken at its embassies around the world.

Donald Trump justified the strike because Soleimani was responsible for “killing millions” and said he had been plotting an imminent attack on US diplomats and personnel in the Middle East.

The president said he did not seek regime change in Iran, but warned that Iranian aggression and use of proxy fighters “must end now”. He said: “We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war.”

Critics accused Mr Trump of “shooting from the hip” and igniting a “tinderbox”, but supporters praised him for showing strength.

Mr Trump kept allies, including Boris Johnson, in the dark before the strike. The British navy said it was ready to “react accordingly”. A British Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “There are presently conversations taking place about how best to prepare, and how to protect our people and our assets.”

World leaders offered notes of caution, with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principle foe in the region, calling for “self-restraint” to avoid “unbearable consequences”.

Donald Trump gives a speech. Photo: REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Donald Trump gives a speech. Photo: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Emmanuel Macron called for “restraint”, while Angela Merkel said: “We are at a dangerous point of escalation.”

Vladimir Putin warned the US had “seriously aggravated the situation”.

But Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader, praised Mr Trump for “acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively”.

Oil prices spiked amid the uncertainty, leading to fears of higher prices at forecourts.

Lindsey Graham, a US senator who is a close ally of Mr Trump, said the US would not hesitate to bomb Iranian oilfields in the case of a retaliation. Dozens of US workers were quickly evacuated from the oilfields.

Mr Graham, who discussed the attack with the president beforehand, said: “They [Iran] were about to unleash holy hell on our people in the region and our president took decisive action. If Iranian aggression continues and I worked at an Iranian oil refinery, I would think about a new career.”

Harsh revenge awaits: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: KHAMENEI.IR/AFP via Getty Images
Harsh revenge awaits: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: KHAMENEI.IR/AFP via Getty Images

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said Mr Soleimani had been plotting an “imminent” and “significant strike” on US targets which had the potential to kill “hundreds”.

He said the strike was “wholly lawful”, adding: “There would have been many Muslims killed as well.”

Soleimani commanded the Iranian Quds Force and was responsible for spreading Iranian influence abroad.

Hassan Karim al-Kaabi, the deputy speaker of Iraq’s parliament, said Baghdad would, over the weekend, make “decisive decisions that put an end to the US’s presence in Iraq”.

“The time has come to put an end to the US recklessness and arrogance in Iraq,” he added.

Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, said the US strikes on its soil violated terms of American military presence.

The US has around 5,000 troops in Iraq, who have fought alongside the country’s forces against Isil.

Mr Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani and said his death would redouble resistance against the United States and Israel.

He called for three days of national mourning and appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to replace him as Quds Force head.

President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would stiffen Iranian resistance to the US, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-US forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.

Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Mr Khamenei’s compound in Tehran to convey their condolences.

“I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani. He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.

Analysts have warned that the assassination would now plunge the region into the unknown.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said: “The killing of Qasem Soleimani is one of the biggest developments in the Middle East for decades. It far eclipses the deaths of Bin Laden or Baghdadi in terms of strategic significance and implications.

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