Baghdad, 3 January 2020 (dpa/MIA) – Iran’s leaders and allied militias on Friday vowed revenge after the killing of a top Iranian general and an Iraqi militia leader in a US attack in Baghdad.
The airstrike killed Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the deputy head of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi militia, and Qassem Soleimani, the popular commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, sharply escalating tensions across the region.
Soleimani was considered one of Iran’s most powerful military leaders, wielding influence in Iraq, Syria and other areas of the Middle East where Iran has a foothold.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened the US with “harsh retaliation” for the strike near Baghdad airport that killed Soleimani late Thursday.
Soleimani’s death would not affect what he termed Islam’s final victory over “the imperialists,” Khamenei added in remarks carried on Iran’s state television, also declaring three days of national mourning.
President Hassan Rowhani said his country would “avenge” the death, comments echoed by Iranian protesters who held anti-US rallies across the country.
Iranian media reported that hundreds of thousands of people used Friday prayers to stage the demonstrations in which they chanted slogans such as “Death to America” and “Revenge, revenge.”
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a high-profile cleric in Tehran, told the crowd “it’s time to end the presence of these harmful beasts in the region,” referring to Americans.
The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered the strike and that Soleimani had been “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
The US also held Soleimani and his Quds Force responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and said he “orchestrated” a rocket attack in Iraq on December 27, which killed an American on a military base.
Trump has yet to comment, tweeting only an image of an American flag.
Eight people, including Soleimani and al-Mohandes, were killed in the strikes mounted by US drones in Baghdad, Hashd al-Shaabi sources said.
Soleimani was targeted shortly after arrival at Baghdad airport from the Syrian capital Damascus, they added. Al-Mohandes was there to welcome him.
Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), said both men were killed when their vehicle was struck on the Baghdad International Airport road.
Images posted on social media showed the smoldering wreckage.
In the aftermath of the killings, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the Iraqi pro-Iran Shiite militia Asaib Ahl Haq, promised relaliation against the US and Israel.
“In return for the blood of the martyr Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is the elimination of all US military presence in Iraq,” he said.
“In return for the blood of martyr Qassem Soleimani is the elimination of all of Israel from existence,” he added.
Hadi al-Amiri, a senior commander in Hashd al-Shaabi, urged Iraqi parliament to order the departure of foreign troops, including Americans, from Iraq.
“We call on all patriotic forces to unify their ranks to get foreign forces out because their presence has become an absurdity for Iraq,” added al-Amiri, the leader of the parliamentary bloc al-Fatah.
The US is leading an international alliance that helped Iraq defeat Islamic State and regain the country’s swathes of territory that was once under the radical group’s control.
While condemning the Baghdad attack as a “sinister aggression”, Iraq’s top Muslim Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, called for self-restraint.
As Washington braced for retaliation, the US embassy in Baghdad, the target of a recent attack by pro-Iran protesters, called on American citizens to “depart Iraq immediately,” citing high tensions in the country and the region.
In response to the call, US employees working in Iraq’s oil fields left the country, according to an Iraqi official.
“The ministry confirms that the situation is normal in oil fields across Iraq. Production and export operations have not been affected,” Asem Jihad, the spokesman for the Iraqi Oil Ministry, said in a statement without details.
The attack comes amid heightened tensions between the US on the one hand, and Iran and its proxy groups on the other.
Earlier this week, thousands of supporters of the Hashd al-Shaabi militia broke into the US embassy compound in Baghdad.
The breach was triggered by US strikes in Iraq and Syria on Sunday that targeted the Kataib Hezbollah militia group, a Hashd Shaabi faction. The US airstrikes killed at least 25 militiamen.
Kataib Hezbollah had been blamed for the attack last week that killed a US citizen.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reinstated US sanctions in what it calls a “maximum pressure campaign.”
Since then the two nations have exchanged bellicose words that have appeared on the verge of war.