Thousands mourn US-slain General Soleimani as funeral rites begin

Thousands of Iraqis chanting “Death to America” on Saturday in Baghdad mourned Major General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander and others killed in a US drone attack on Friday, sparking fears of a regional proxy war between Washington and Tehran.

Iraq’s caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi joined Muhandis associate Hadi al-Ameri, Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, former PM Nuri al-Maliki and other pro-Iran figures in large crowds accompanying the coffins.

The coffins were first brought to a revered Shiite shrine in northern Baghdad, where thousands of mourners chanted “Death to America!”

Dressed in black, they waved white Hashed flags and massive portraits of Iranian and Iraqi leaders, furiously calling for “revenge”.

The crowds headed south to a point near the Green Zone, the high-security district home to government offices and foreign embassies, including America’s.

The remains will later be taken to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to the south, and the remains of the Guards will then be flown to Iran, which has declared three days of mourning.

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The killing of Soleimani on Friday was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between Iran and the United States, which pledged to send thousands more troops to the region.

Iraqi political leaders and clerics attended the mass ceremony to honour 62-year-old Soleimani and the other nine victim of the pre-dawn attack on Baghdad international airport, including Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

US President Donald Trump said Friday he had decided to “terminate” Iran’s military mastermind to prevent an “imminent” attack on US diplomats and troops.

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” he insisted.

But the strike — which killed four more Iranian Guards and five members of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network — infuriated Iran, whose ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, called it an “act of war” by its arch-enemy.

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As head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arm, Soleimani was a powerful figure domestically and oversaw wide-ranging Iranian involvement in regional power struggles.

Soleimani had long been considered a lethal foe by Washington, with Trump saying he should have been killed “many years ago”.

Tehran has already named Soleimani’s deputy, Esmail Qaani, to replace him.

His first order of business was made clear Friday when Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death.

Iraqi paramilitary figures including US-blacklisted Qais al-Khazaali and militiaman-turned-politician Moqtada Sadr have called on their fighters to “be ready”.

And, elsewhere in the region, Lebanon’s Tehran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah threatened “punishment for these criminal assassins”.

Amid the tensions, the Pentagon said up to 3,500 additional US troops would be dispatched to Iraq’s southern neighbour Kuwait, to boost some 14,000 reinforcements already deployed to the region last year.

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There are approximately 5,200 US troops stationed across Iraq to train Iraqis to fight jihadists.

They have faced a spate of rocket attacks that the US has blamed on pro-Iran factions and which last month killed an American contractor.

On Saturday, a US official told AFP the US-led forces were scaling back operations and refocusing surveillance to watch for new rocket attacks.

Early on Saturday, the Hashed said a new strike had hit a convoy of their forces north of Baghdad, with Iraqi state media blaming the US.

But US-led coalition spokesman Myles Caggins denied involvement, telling AFP: “There was no American or coalition strike.”

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