Pro-Iran factions ramped up pressure on US installations across Iraq Saturday with missiles and warnings to Iraqi troops, after tens of thousands mourned an Iranian general killed in a US strike.
The killing of Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani in a precision drone strike on Baghdad early Friday was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between Washington and Tehran, which had vowed “revenge.”
In the first hints of a possible retaliatory response, two mortar rounds hit an area near the US embassy in Baghdad on Saturday, security sources told AFP.
Almost simultaneously, two rockets slammed into the Al-Balad airbase where American troops are deployed, security sources said.
The Iraqi military confirmed the missile attacks in Baghdad and on al-Balad and said there were no casualties.
While no one claimed the attacks, a hardline pro-Iran faction in Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military network shortly after urged Iraqis to move away from US forces.
“We ask security forces in the country to get at least 1,000 meters away from US bases starting on Sunday at 5:00pm (1400 GMT),” said Kataeb Hezbollah.
The deadline would coincide with a parliament session on Sunday which the Hashed has insisted should see a vote on the ouster of US troops.
Washington has blamed the vehemently anti-American group for a series of rocket attacks in recent weeks targeting US diplomats and troops stationed across Iraq.
Many had feared the American strike that killed Iran’s military mastermind Soleimani would set off a wider conflict with Iran and had been bracing for more attacks.
“This is no longer a proxy war,” said Erica Gaston, a non-resident fellow at the New America Foundation.
“What you have is America attacking an Iranian general directly, and groups are now openly fighting for Iran to avenge him. This is a direct war,” she told AFP.
‘Foolish’ US outreach
The US strike on Baghdad international airport early Friday killed a total of five Iranian Revolutionary Guards and five members of Iraq’s Hashed.
Among the dead was Hashed’s deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top adviser and personal friend to Soleimani.
As head of the Guards’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, Soleimani was a powerful figure domestically and oversaw Iran’s wide-ranging interventions in regional power struggles.
US President Donald Trump had said Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on US personnel in Baghdad and should have been killed “many years ago”.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death and Tehran named Soleimani’s deputy, Esmail Qaani, to succeed him.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis including Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, political leaders and clerics attended a mass ceremony on Saturday to honour Soleimani and the other victims.
They waved white Hashed flags and massive portraits of Iranian and Iraqi leaders, furiously calling for “revenge” and chanting “Death to America!”
The remains were moved from Baghdad to the shrine city of Karbala and then Najaf, where the Iraqis will be buried and from whose airports the Guards are to be flown to Iran.
Tehran has slammed the strike as an “act of war” and Abdel Mahdi said it could bring “devastating” violence to Iraq.
World powers quickly called for a de-escalation, and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani was in Tehran on Saturday for talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Zarif had earlier mocked as “foolish” a diplomatic effort by the United States, who he said had sent a letter to Iranian officials through a Swiss envoy, as Tehran and Washington have not had direct diplomatic ties for decades.
Iran’s Guards said Washington had used “diplomatic measures” to urge Tehran to respond “in proportion” to the strike.
Ousting ‘the occupier’
The attacks on Saturday evening appeared to be precisely the reaction Iraqis had long feared: tit-for-tat strikes between the Hashed and the US on Iraqi soil.
Early on Saturday, the Hashed had claimed a new strike hit their convoy north of Baghdad, with Iraqi state media blaming the US.
But the US-led coalition denied involvement, telling AFP: “There was no American or coalition strike” on Saturday.
Following tensions, NATO said it was suspending its training activities in Iraq and a US defence official told AFP that American-led coalition forces would “limit” operations.
“Our first priority is protecting coalition personnel,” the official said, saying surveillance had shifted from monitoring jihadist sleeper cells to watching for incoming rocket attacks.
As the rocket attacks unfolded, coalition planes were heard circulating above their bases in Kirkuk province, AFP’s correspondent there said.
Iraq’s pro-Iran factions have seized on Soleimani’s death to demand parliament decree that US forces leave Iraq.
“We either vote on the occupation forces leaving, or we remain subservient, robbed of our will and dignity,” said MP Ahmad al-Kinany of the Hashed’s political bloc, Fatah.
“Any parliamentarian absent for the vote on the departure of the occupier will have betrayed his country,” he said.
While praying over Muhandis’ remains in Baghdad on Saturday, Fatah head Hadi al-Ameri pledged to avenge him.
“Be reassured that the price of your pure blood will be the departure of American troops from Iraq, forever,” he said.