Thousands gather in Iraq to mark murder of Iranian general in 2020
Thousands of supporters of an Iraqi alliance of armed groups on Saturday marked the second anniversary of a US drone strike that killed a revered Iranian commander and his Iraqi lieutenant.
Chanting “Death to America,” Hashed al-Chaabi loyalists filled a place in Baghdad to honor Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who led the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, until ‘upon his death on January 3, 2020.
The nighttime drone strike near Baghdad airport sent shockwaves across the region and raised fears that decades of hostility between Washington and regional Shiite power Tehran could escalate into direct military confrontation.
“American terrorism must stop,” read a sign at the rally of supporters of pro-Iranian Hashed, a former Shia paramilitary alliance that has been integrated into the Iraqi state security apparatus.
The strike against Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s military strategy in the Middle East, was ordered by then-US President Donald Trump, and it also killed his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of Hashed.
Chopped supporters, some with their children, marched through a square in central Baghdad that was closed to traffic, an AFP correspondent said.
Some displayed huge white flags bearing the Hashed badge, as well as the Iraqi national flag, while others held photos of Soleimani and Muhandis.
– Unclaimed attacks –
The United States said at the time that Soleimani foresaw imminent action against American personnel in Iraq, a country long torn between competing demands from its main allies Washington and Tehran, and the assassination came after a wave of attacks on American interests in the country.
Iran, which wields considerable cross-border influence, has warned it will avenge Soleimani’s death.
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Five days after his assassination, he fired missiles at an air base in Iraq housing US troops and another near Arbil in the north of the country.
Since then, dozens of rockets and roadside bombs have targeted US security, military and diplomatic sites across Iraq.
Iraqi and Western officials blamed hardline pro-Iran factions for the attacks, which were never claimed by any group.
In February last year, the United States carried out an airstrike against Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iraqi paramilitary force backed by Iran and stationed along the Iraqi-Syrian border, following rocket attacks against its embassy in Baghdad and an American military company north of the capital.
Hashed has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of US troops deployed in Iraq as part of a multinational coalition fighting the jihadists of the Islamic State group.
Sunni extremists seized about a third of Iraq in a flash offensive in 2014, but were repelled by both the US-led coalition and the Hached, before Baghdad declared the jihadists defeated at the end of 2017.
– ‘Crime against sovereignty’ –
Senior Hashed official Faleh al-Fayyad reiterated the demand for the United States to complete its withdrawal on Saturday, saying the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis was “a crime against Iraqi sovereignty.”
In December, Iraq announced the end of the US-led coalition “combat mission” in the country.
But around 2,500 US troops and 1,000 coalition troops are expected to remain deployed in Iraq to provide training, advice and assistance to national forces.
Hashed’s political wing, the Fatah Alliance (Conquest), performed very well in the 2018 parliamentary elections, thanks to the paramilitaries’ key role in defeating ISIS.
While Fatah remains a significant political player, it lost nearly two-thirds of its seats in parliamentary elections in October, driven by concerns even among Shia voters over outsized Iranian influence.
As part of the anniversary commemorations, a candlelight vigil is scheduled to take place Sunday evening at Baghdad airport.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and senior guard officials met with Soleimani’s family on Saturday, ahead of the main commemorations on Monday.
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