BAGHDAD — As Iraq held joint funeral services on Saturday for two revered leaders killed in an American drone strike near the Baghdad airport this past week, tens of thousands of pro-Iranian fighters marched down the streets of Baghdad, waving flags and chanting that “Revenge is coming” to the United States.
The surprise killing on Friday of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and one of the most powerful figures in the region, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi-Iranian deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the armed groups that are part of the Iraqi security forces, sent shock waves across the Middle East.
It also raised fears that the shadow war that had been building in the region between the United States and Iran could suddenly escalate into a major conflict, if not all-out war.
General Suleimani, 62, was the architect of Iran’s network of ties with militant groups across the region, including in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The extent of that network added to uncertainty about how Iran might respond to his killing. Tehran could do so from any of those places by targeting United States forces, or their allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or other countries in the Persian Gulf.
But even as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised “forceful revenge” for the killing of General Suleimani, experts said it remained unclear whether Iran would make good on its threats. They noted that the country had to balance its need to show resolve against a staunch enemy and its reluctance to thrust itself into a full-scale war with the United States, a much stronger power.
The funerals were held against a backdrop of unprecedented regional tension as Iran and the United States signaled they could be on the brink of a potentially catastrophic war. Since the killing of General Suleimani and Mr. al-Muhandis, neither side has made another move — although both have made threats.
At the joint funerals, as close to a state ceremony as any since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a key pillar of Iran’s regional reach was on display in Baghdad. The mobilization fighters, faces somber and almost all dressed in black, carried a vast array of flags representing their different groups.
They chanted: “The blood of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis will not be spilled in vain. Revenge is coming.”
Precisely what kind of revenge was planned was not clear, but the loss, especially of Mr. al-Muhandis, was a profound one for the Iraqi fighters who saw him not just as a militia leader close to Iran, but also as someone who had helped rally the armed groups when they first formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State. The extremists were then threatening to sweep from the north to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
Many proclaimed during his funeral: “Our men do not fear America; each man dies on his day. Your voice, Abu Mahdi, remains the loudest one.”
General Suleimani’s body will be taken to Najaf, Iraq, a prominent Shiite burial place, then flown to Mashhad, Iran, on Sunday for a funeral service. A large state service is expected in Tehran on Monday, and the general is expected to be buried in his hometown, Kerman, on Tuesday, Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported.
The United States has called on its citizens to leave Iraq, shuttered its embassy in Baghdad, sent additional Marines and on Thursday deployed 700 members of the 82nd Airborne Division to the region.
After the strike, President Trump said the attack had been intended “to stop a war” and warned Iran that the United States military had already identified targets for further strikes “if Americans anywhere are threatened.”
Among those attending the funeral on Saturday were Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq and a number of senior Shiite leaders, including Ammar al-Hakim; Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a former prime minister; Falih Al Fayad, the national security adviser; and Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization, which is both a political party and has one of the largest and oldest militias.
Missing from the cortege were Qais al-Khazali, the leader of one of the most notorious pro-Iran militias in Iraq, Asaib al-Haq; and Hamid al-Jazaeri, who leads the Khorasani Brigade, a pro-Iran militia.
Mr. Abdul Mahdi looked visibly upset as he walked surrounded by security officers in a sea of militia fighters. As Iraq’s leader, he has been caught between Iran, its neighbor, and the United States as the two have ratcheted up their confrontations.
The latest conflict started with a rocket attack a week ago that killed an American contractor working at an Iraqi military base in the north of the country. That was followed by an American attack on five Popular Mobilization militia bases in western Iraq and Syria that killed more than 24 people and set in motion the events that led to a nearly two-day siege of the United States Embassy in Baghdad.
After the funerals on Saturday, some mourners tried to again enter the Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government and many embassies. But they were pushed back, in contrast to a violent attack on Tuesday, when pro-Iranian protesters pushed past guards and laid siege to the American Embassy, effectively imprisoning diplomats inside, burning and looting the reception area and climbing inside the compound.
In Iran, the news media flooded its broadcasts and front pages with coverage of General Suleimani’s death, and even news outlets perceived to be more moderate called for revenge.
When President Hassan Rouhani of Iran paid his condolences on Saturday during a visit to General Suleimani’s home, he, too, spoke of revenge — but with an open-ended timeline.
“The Americans did not realize what a great mistake they made,” Mr. Rouhani said. “They will see the effects of this criminal act, not only today, but for years to come.”
Alissa J. Rubin and Falih Hassan reported from Baghdad, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut.
Source : Nytimes