BAGHDAD, JANUARY 5: As Iraq held joint funeral services on Saturday for 2 revered military leaders killed in an American drone strike near the Baghdad airport this past week, tens of thousands of pro-Iranian fighters marched down the streets of Baghdad, waving flags and chanting, “Revenge is coming” to the US.
On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone near the US Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighbourhood and 2 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 US-led mission suspended their programmes to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said. “The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount,” acting NATO spokesman Dylan White said.
The surprise killing on Friday of Major General Qassim Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and one of the most powerful figures in the region, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi-Iranian deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the armed groups that are part of the Iraqi security forces, sent shock waves across West Asia.
It also raised fears that the shadow war that had been building in the region between the US and Iran could suddenly escalate into a major conflict. General Suleimani, 62, was the architect of Iran’s network of ties with militant groups across the region, including in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The extent of that network added to uncertainty about how Iran might respond to his killing. Tehran could do so from any of those places by targeting US forces, or their allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or other countries in the Persian Gulf.
But even as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised “forceful revenge” for the killing of General Suleimani, experts said it remained unclear whether Iran would make good on its threats. They noted that the country had to balance its need to show resolve against a staunch enemy and its reluctance to thrust itself into a full-scale war with the US, a much stronger power.
The funerals were held against a backdrop of extreme regional tension as Iran and the US signalled they could be on the brink of a potentially catastrophic war. Since the killing of General Suleimani and Al-Muhandis, neither side has made another move ~ although both have made threats.
At the joint funerals, as close to a state ceremony as any since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a key pillar of Iran’s regional reach was on display in Baghdad. The mobilisation fighters, faces sombre and almost all dressed in black, carried a vast array of flags representing their different groups.
They chanted: “The blood of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis will not be spilled in vain. Revenge is coming.”
Precisely what kind of revenge was planned was not clear.
But without giving details, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander was quoted on Saturday by the Tasnim news agency as saying that Iran would punish Americans wherever they are within reach of the Islamic Republic in retaliation for the killing of General Suleimani.
General Gholamali Abuhamzeh, the commander of the Guards in the southern province of Kerman, raised the prospect of possible attacks on ships in the Gulf.
Iran reserved the right to take revenge against the US for the death of Soleimani, he said in comments made late on Friday and reported on Saturday by Tasnim.
The loss of Al-Muhandis was a profound one for the Iraqi fighters who saw him not just as a militia leader close to Iran, but also as someone who had helped rally the armed groups when they first formed in 2014 to fight the IS.
(Courtesy: NYTNS & Agencies)