Thousands gathered in Baghdad Saturday to mourn the death of those killed in a U.S. airstrike that has sent tensions soaring throughout the Middle East.
Mourners chanted “Death to America, death to Israel” as they marched in a funeral procession for Iran’s top general and senior Iraqi commanders who were killed in the strike early Friday near the Iraqi capital’s international airport.
The crowd of mostly men dressed in black fatigues carried the bodies of those killed.
Some also carried their country’s flag and the flags of Iran-backed militias that are loyal to Qassem Soleimani, the high-profile commander of Iran’s secretive Quds Force whose death has raised fears of escalation and even all-out war.
President Donald Trump said Friday that he ordered the the drone attack that killed Soleimani in order to prevent a conflict.
But Iran has vowed revenge and “harsh retaliation.”
Washington said Friday it was dispatching another 3,000 troops to the region, while U.S. allies across the world have urged caution.
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Qatar, which often serves as a mediator in the Middle East, said its foreign minister had discussed “ways of exercising restraint” during a visit to Tehran Saturday.
As the world waits to see what comes next, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) said early Saturday another airstrike hit a convoy north of the capital, killing at least six people.
But both the Iraqi military and the PMU — an umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed militias — later denied any airstrikes had taken place in the area. The U.S.-led coalition also denied carrying out any airstrike.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, said to be the deputy of the militias and a close adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in Friday’s strike.
Iraq’s president, Barham Saleh, told NBC News Friday that tensions are running high in the country, which has been gripped by anti-government demonstrations and saw protesters storm the U.S. embassy in Iraq earlier this week.
“The situation in Iraq is very fragile, very precarious,” he said, calling for restraint on all sides.
“Iraq cannot be condemned to another cycle of violence. We have had too many wars over the last four decades.”
The Pentagon has justified the targeted killing of Soleimani by saying he was actively developing plans to attack U.S. diplomats and service members in Iraq and elsewhere throughout the region.
He is also blamed for orchestrating a series of attacks on allied bases in Iraq in recent months, including a rocket strike that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded four other service members last week.
That prompted the U.S. to carry out deadly airstrikes last Sunday on weapons depots in Iraq and Syria that it said were linked to Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite militia group. That in turn prompted the demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy involving as many as 6,00 people, many of whom were linked to the group.
Iraq’s leadership is facing mounting pressure to expel the 5,2000 American troops it hosts to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State militant group. Its parliament is expected to hold an emergency session on Sunday in response to the airstrike.
Meanwhile in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani visited Soleimani’s house to pay respects to the late general’s family. He was seen hugging Soleimani’s son and greeting his wife.
Images of the general have been plastered across billboards around the capital, where Soleimani’s body was expected to be repatriated either late Saturday or early Sunday morning.
The main funeral ceremony will be held in Tehran on Monday where Khamenei will lead prayers. On Tuesday, Soleimani will be buried in his home town of Kerman.
“They (Americans) do not realize what a big mistake they have made,” Rouhani warned as he visited the family.
“They will see the consequences of their mistake not only today but in the years to come.”
Charlene Gubash, Richard Engel, Ali Arouzi and Associated Press contributed.