As the US and Iraqi military deny militia claims of fresh airstrikes overnight, tensions are high ahead of ceremonies for Qassem Suleimani
The bodies of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and others killed in a US drone strike will be taken on a funeral procession starting in Baghdad on Saturday ahead of a public farewell for the slain military leader in Tehran the following day, according to officials in Iran.
Fresh airstrikes against Iran-backed militiamen were reported in the Iraqi capital on Saturday morning as Iranian leaders declared Suleimani’s targeted assassination outside Baghdad airport on Friday morning to be “an act of war”.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of paramilitary groups, claimed five medics had been killed in the latest attack. But the US denied it had carried out any attacks and the Iraqi military later issued a statement saying that no attack had taken place.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners are expected to turn out for the funeral processions in Baghdad on Saturday, further raising tensions in a city where US installations have already come under attack this week. The US state department has told its citizens to leave the city.
Iran’s envoy to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, told Iranian state media that Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi had insisted on holding a public funeral for Suleimani in Baghdad along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi militia leader killed in the same operation.
Funeral processions would also be held on Saturday in the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf, Iranian officials said, before Suleimani’s remains were returned to Iran on Sunday morning. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei would lead a prayer ceremony for Suleimani in Tehran and his body would be buried in his hometown of Kerman, Iranian outlets reported.
Echoing fiery threats of retaliation from across Iran’s leadership, the country’s ambassador to the UN said on Saturday that the killing of Suleiman could not go unanswered. “There will be harsh revenge,” Majid Takht Ravanchi told CNN. “The time, the place, will be decided by Iran.”
Suleimani, 62, oversaw the external operations of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and was the architect of an expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East in the past decades. A Pentagon statement accused Suleimani’s Quds force of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US soldiers and the wounding of thousands more.
Often mooted as a future presidential candidate, Suleimani was thought to be considered untouchable until Friday morning’s strikes by Reaper drones on his convoy outside Baghdad airport.
His killing triggered rejoicing in parts of Iraq and Syria, where the ruthless strategist was implicated in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.
But the general reaction in world capitals was apprehension.
“This is a moment in which leaders must exercise maximum restraint,” the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said. “The world cannot afford another war in the Gulf.”
The Pentagon ordered 3,000 reinforcements to the region on Friday but US leaders including president Donald Trump have characterised Suleimani’s killing as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the deaths of Americans in imminent attacks.
In a a brief address from his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago on Friday, Donald Trump described Suleimani as the “the number one terrorist anywhere in the world”, and claimed the general was planning “imminent and sinister” operations against on US diplomats and personnel.
But the US president said that he was not seeking regime change in Iran, saying: “We did not take action to start a war.”
Senior US officials added on Saturday that Suleimani’s killing would help to disrupt future Iranian-sponsored military operations.
“I’m just saying that Suleimani was in many ways the indispensable man, and with Suleimani dead, it will be very difficult for these proxies to be organized on the scale, lethality, and effectiveness that they had under Suleimani,” an official said.
Another added: “There were things he could do that nobody else could do. He was not a decentralised manager; he was a hands-on, down-to-the-details manager. And we are not safe in the region as long as Iran is pursuing this general strategy, but we are safer without him than we are with him.”
A third official added Suleiman’s death would reduce the pace of attacks on Americans. “It slows it down. It makes it less likely,” the official said, adding: “Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things?”
The assassination came as Iraq was already on the brink of a full-on proxy war and hours after a two-day siege of the US embassy in Baghdad by a group of PMF militiamen and their supporters. The Pentagon said Suleimani had masterminded the embassy attack.
The siege was in response to US airstrikes on camps run by a PMF-affiliated militia particularly closely aligned with Tehran, which in turn was a reprisal for that militia’s killing of a US contractor in an attack on an Iraqi army base on Friday.