Sunday 26 January 2020

Thousands chant 'death to America' at funeral of Iran's top general Qassem Soleimani

  • Thousands march in funeral procession of Iran's top general and Iraqi militant leaders
  • Iran has vowed harsh retaliation against the US, raising fears of an all-out war
  • Trump claims strike was to prevent a conflict
  • Washington dispatches 3,000 troop reinforcements to the region
  • 'We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over' - Trump
Mourners attend the funeral of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq
REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
Mourners attend the funeral of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
President Hassan Rouhani meets family of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen Qassem Soleimani (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Vehicles drive past a billboard showing a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen Qassem Soleimani (Vahid Salemi/AP)
President Hassan Rouhani meets family of Gen Qassem Soleimani (Iranian Presidency Office/AP)
Mourners gather for a funeral procession for Gen Qassem Soleimani (PMF Media Office via AP)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets family of General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Friday’s US air strike in Iraq (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP)
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets family of General Qassem Soleimani on Friday (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP)
Protesters in Tehran demonstrate over the US drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday (Vahid Salemi/PA)
A burning vehicle at the airport after the air strike (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/AP)

Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sarah el Deeb

Thousands of mourners have marched in a funeral procession through Baghdad for Iran's top general and Iraqi militant leaders, who were killed in a US air strike, chanting "Death to America".

Gen Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds force and mastermind of its regional security strategy, was killed in an air strike early on Friday near the Iraqi capital's international airport that has caused regional tensions to soar.

Iran has vowed harsh retaliation, raising fears of an all-out war.

US President Donald Trump says he ordered the strike to prevent a conflict. His administration says Soleimani was plotting a series of attacks that endangered American troops and officials, without providing evidence.

Washington has dispatched 3,000 troop reinforcements to the region.

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 group.

He was also blamed for attacks on US troops and American allies going back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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," and "Death to America, death to Israel."

Mohammed Fadl, a mourner dressed in black, said the funeral is an expression of loyalty to the slain leaders.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani
Stringer via REUTERS/File Photo
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani Stringer via REUTERS/File Photo

"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.

As tensions soared across the region, there were reports overnight of an air strike on a convoy of Iran-backed militiamen north of Baghdad.

Hours later, the Iraqi army denied any air strike had taken place. The US-led coalition also denied carrying out any air strike.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed militias, and security officials had reported the air strike in Taji, north of the capital.

An Iraqi security official had said five people were killed and two vehicles were destroyed.

It was not immediately clear if another type of explosion had occurred.

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 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 that it said had strayed into its airspace.

Global powers had warned on Friday that the killing of Soleimani could spark a dangerous new escalation, with many calling for restraint.

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," Mr Rouhani said.

"They will see the effects of this criminal act, not only today but for years to come."

The targeted strike against Soleimani, and any retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering US troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

"We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over," Mr Trump said of Soleimani.

The US has urged American citizens to leave Iraq "immediately" following the early morning air strike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.

The State Department said the US embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.

Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State group militants.

US embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.

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President Donald Trump addresses reporters about the Baghdad airport air strike at his Florida golf resort on Friday (Evan Vucci/AP)

The US announcement about sending more troops came as Mr Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran.

"We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war," Mr Trump said, adding he was not seeking regime change in Iran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed "harsh retaliation" after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the "international face of resistance."

PA Media

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