Thousands of Iraqi mourners have condemned the “American occupiers”, a year after a United States drone strike killed Iran’s revered general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The anniversary of their deaths in Baghdad – which brought arch enemies the US and Iran to the brink of war – was also marked on Sunday in Iran and by supporters in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.
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Streets leading to central Baghdad’s Tahrir Square were packed with thousands of protesters who had converged on the site since early Sunday morning.
The protesters raised pictures of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, and flags of Iraq, the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), of which al-Muhandis was a leader, and other Iraqi factions.
They also carried banners with slogans demanding the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and chanted for retaliation against those who carried out the assassination.
Addressing the protesters, the head of Hashd al-Shaabi, Faleh al-Fayyad, vowed retaliation against those who carried out the crime and called for the US troops to leave Iraq.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, said the Iraqi protesters were demanding the immediate, swift withdrawal of all remaining US troops in Iraq.
“They are also demanding a continuation of the kind of heated rhetoric that we’ve heard in a couple of days around the anniversary of the assassination of the leader of the Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani. They are demanding and promising revenge,” he said.
Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said the mood was similar in Iran where the head of the country’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, as well as the head of the Revolutionary Guard, Major General Hossein Salami, said Tehran was not finished with avenging Soleimani’s death.
“That will come in due time. It’s something that we have heard from the supreme leader as well as the president earlier in December,” she said.
The powerful pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary network in Iraq which al-Muhandis commanded has led the sombre and angry vigils for him and Soleimani, who headed the elite foreign operations arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The commemorations started on Saturday night when thousands of black-clad mourners converged at the spot near Baghdad’s international airport where the US hit the two vehicles and killed Soleimani, al-Muhandis and eight other men.
By candlelight, they honoured their “martyrs” and condemned the American “great Satan” at the site where nearby walls are still pock-marked by shrapnel.
“We tell America and the enemies of Islam that they can inflict the greatest sacrifices on us, but we will continue to resist despite the bloodshed,” said Hashd supporter Batul Najjar.
The Hashd – factions of which Washington has blamed for rocket attacks against its embassy and troops in Iraq – has increasingly challenged Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who it accuses of having helped plot the drone strikes.
This has increased tensions in the war-battered and politically fragile country which the US invaded in 2003, and which is struggling with an economic crisis amid low oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.
Giant posters of Soleimani and al-Muhandis were hung above the square, which in late 2019 became the centre of large anti-government protests, from an abandoned building known as the Turkish restaurant.
Amid the tensions, Iraqis, and many in the wider region, are nervously watching for any signs of escalation before US President Donald Trump leaves the White House on January 20.
Trump confronted decades-old foe Iran by withdrawing in 2018 from its nuclear deal with world powers and launching a “maximum pressure” campaign to further economically punish and isolate the country.
‘Think it over’
Trump recently said on Twitter that the US was hearing the “chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq”, and warned: “If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”
In recent days, US B-52 bombers have flown across the region for the second time in less than a month but, in what some read as a sign of de-escalation, Washington has also reportedly ordered its Nimitz aircraft carrier to leave the Gulf.
Iran and the United States – bitter enemies since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution and the US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran – have twice come to the brink of war since June 2019, most recently after Soleimani’s killing.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday accused Trump of aiming to fabricate a “pretext for war”, after the president blamed Tehran for a December 20 rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.
In the war of words, Zarif on Saturday also claimed that, in Iraq, “Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans (to put) Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli (act to justify war)”.