Mourners surround a vehicle carrying the coffin of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani (shown in portrait being held aloft) on Saturday during a funeral procession in Baghdad for him and others killed in a drone strike overnight between Thursday and Friday at the city’s international airport. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Throngs in Baghdad Mourn Assassinated Commanders

Shi’ites in Iraq, Iran vow vengeance for Friday’s targeted killing by the US of Qasem Soleimani, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis

Thousands of people, including the Iraqi prime minister, took to the streets of Baghdad on Saturday during a funeral procession for Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and six others killed overnight between Thursday and Friday in a US drone strike.

The coffins were carried and surrounded by massive crowds of people waving the flags of Iraq and Hashed al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group for the country’s pro-Iran militias. Individual mourners hefted portraits of Soleimani and Muhandis and chanted “Death to America,” telling of the outrage in the Shi’ite-majority country.

As head of Quds Force, the elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani, 61, was the mastermind of Iran’s clandestine operations. Many have described his death as “catastrophic” to the Islamic Republic’s influence in the region.

His body is to be returned to Iran for a funeral and burial in his hometown on Tuesday.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed to take “severe revenge.”

US President Donald Trump justified Soleimani’s death, saying the order he gave to kill the senior Iranian commander saved many lives.

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” he said later on Friday.

President Trump accused Soleimani of planning an imminent attack, or possibly several, on Americans, an accusation vehemently rejected by the Iranians.

Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the American Studies Department at Tehran University, called the US president’s claim “rubbish.”

“This is a major miscalculation by the Trump Administration, which has been fooled by its own propaganda,” Marandi told The Media Line, adding that the killing of Soleimani amounted to a declaration of war.

“This was an act of war against a high-ranking Iranian official,” he said. “It was an act of war not only against Iran, but also against Iraq, because they [the Americans] also murdered a very high-ranking Iraqi official, a war hero who, alongside Gen. Soleimani, led the forces that ultimately defeated ISIS.”

Marandi believes the killings will not go unpunished, for in the eyes of many, Soleimani and Muhandis are “heroes.”

After news came of the deadly drone attack, many Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate. However, the happiness quickly became anger over Washington’s complete disregard for Iraqi sovereignty by having turned the country into a battleground to settle scores with Iran.

“This will end the American military presence in Iraq,” Marandi predicted.

“This has united the Iranian and Iraqi people,” he continued. “I think the Americans should not be misled by former Baathists, Saddam Hussein’s supporters, ISIS supporters and American NGO people who are celebrating.”

Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, told The Media Line that the rules of the game may now be changing.

”I think the strike against Qasem Soleimani has signaled to the world that a red line really means a red line when it comes to President Trump, especially when US lives are at stake,” he said.

“We’re [also] beginning to hear from some Iranian officials that a harsh, but not hasty, reaction will take place,” Brodsky added, saying “the regime could deploy its expansive axis of resistance in the Middle East or its own capabilities against US interests.”

Whatever it does, Tehran will choose its avenues of recourse with care.

“When the Islamic Republic was bracing for retaliation after the downing of the US drone over the summer, Al-Udeid [an air base in Qatar used by the US], Al-Dhafra [an air base in the United Arab Emirates] and a US warship in the Sea of Oman were mentioned as potential targets,” he said. “But there are risks for Iran in hitting US bases in countries with which it maintains important relationships, like Qatar. So Tehran will consider its options carefully and [according to] its own timetable.”

Brodsky believes that Tehran was caught off guard by the drone strike that killed Soleimani.

“After the lack of a kinetic response to the downing of the US drone, [attacks against] tankers and the strike against Aramco facilities [in Saudi Arabia], Tehran thought the [US] president was militarily risk-averse,” he explained. “But the administration’s strike on Soleimani has likely changed the regime’s calculations.”

Hasan Awwad, a Middle East expert at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, told The Media Line that Iran could always use its proxies in the region to gain revenge.

“Let’s not forget Iran’s most powerful ally, the Lebanese group Hizbullah,” Awwad stated. “It could strike deep into Israel by launching rockets. Or Iran could simply close the Strait of Hormuz and deprive the world of oil.”

Nabeel Nowairah, a research associate at the Washington-based Gulf International Forum, told The Media Line that although Iran and the US have no interest in a full-scale war, Tehran feels compelled to retaliate.

“This is a major event, and Iran will retaliate, maybe through proxies. Unless significant efforts are made to avoid it, we may be on the verge of a war,” Nowairah said.

It did not take long for Iran’s supreme leader to appoint a new Quds Force commander, with Khamenei choosing Soleimani’s 62-year-old deputy, Esmail Qaani.

Amid the tensions, the Pentagon says that up to 3,500 additional US troops will be dispatched to Iraq’s southern neighbor, Kuwait, to boost some 14,000 reinforcements already deployed to the region last year.

Many airlines have suspended flights to Iraqi cities, while several countries have issued travel alerts. The United Kingdom is advising its citizens against all travel to Iraq, except for the Kurdistan region, and “all but essential travel to Iran.”

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