Rockets Fired After Day of Mourning for Slain Iranian Leader

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -
Mourners march during the funeral of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces and fellow terror leaders, in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 4. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

With shouts of “Death to America,” tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq on Saturday to mourn Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader who were killed in a U.S. airstrike that has raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East.

On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighborhood and two more rockets were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, the Iraqi military said in a statement. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

With security worries rising after Friday’s strike, the NATO alliance and a separate U.S.-led mission suspended their programs to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.

“The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount. We continue to take all precautions necessary,” acting NATO spokesman Dylan White said in a statement.

Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign legions, was killed in the U.S. strike on his convoy at Baghdad Airport. Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed. The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.

France stepped up diplomatic initiatives on Saturday to ease tensions. French President Emmanuel Macron talked with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Macron’s office said.

“The two presidents agreed to remain in close contact to avoid any further escalation in tensions and in order to act to ensure stability in Iraq and the broader region,” a statement from Macron’s office said.

Macron also spoke with the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Palestinians burn U.S. and Israeli flags as they attend a mourning tent held by Palestinian factions for Qassem Soleimani, in Gaza City, Jan 4. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Gholamali Abuhamzeh, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said Tehran would punish Americans “wherever they are in reach,” and raised the prospect of possible attacks on ships in the Gulf.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad urged American citizens to leave Iraq. Dozens of American employees of foreign oil companies left the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Friday.

Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq “by a distance not less than a thousand meters starting Sunday evening,” reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen news channel, which is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The United States has been an ally of the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but Iraq has become more closely allied with Iran.

The top candidate to succeed Muhandis, Hadi al-Amiri, spoke over the dead militia commander’s coffin: “The price for your noble blood is American forces leaving Iraq forever and achieving total national sovereignty.”

The Iraqi Parliament is convening an extraordinary session during which a vote to expel U.S. troops could be taken as soon as Sunday.

Soleimani, 62, was Iran’s preeminent military leader – head of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s spreading influence in the Middle East.

Muhandis was the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.

A PMF-organized procession carried the bodies of Soleimani and Muhandis, and those of others killed in the U.S. strike, through Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Mourners included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armored personnel carriers in the procession. Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also attended.

Mourners later brought the bodies by car to the city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, then to Najaf, where they were met by the son of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.

Soleimani’s body will be transferred to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday it will be taken to Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.

President Donald Trump said on Friday that Soleimani had been plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.

The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militia attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

On Friday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Soleimani’s death would intensify Tehran’s resistance to the United States and Israel.

Abuhamzeh, the Revolutionary Guards commander in Kerman province, mentioned a series of possible targets for reprisals, including the Gulf waterway through which about a third of the world’s shipborne oil is exported to global markets.

“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there,” Abuhamzeh was quoted as saying on Friday evening by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

“Vital American targets in the region have long since been identified by Iran … Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he said.