Gaza opens mourning site for Iran’s assassinated commander
Rouhani: US to pay dearly for assassinating military leader
Soleimani’s assassination ‘act of war’: UN envoy
Italy blasts America’s use of violence
Tens of thousands of Iraqis chanting “Death to America” and “America is the Great Satan” marched in a funeral procession through Baghdad on Saturday to mourn Iran’s Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani and others assassinated in a US drone attack early Friday.
Gen. Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and mastermind of its regional security strategy, was killed in the airstrike near the Iraqi capital’s international airport.
The killing was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiraling tensions between Iran and the United States. By ordering Friday’s airstrike on the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ foreign legions, US President Donald Trump has taken Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory.
Iraqi political leaders and clerics attended the mass ceremony to honor 62-year-old Soleimani and nine other victims of the pre-dawn attack, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, known as the Hashd al-Sha’abi.
Iraq's Premier Adel Abdel Mahdi joined Muhandis associate Hadi al-Ameri, Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim, former PM Nuri al-Maliki and other figures in large crowds accompanying the coffins.
The coffins were first brought to the revered Shia shrine of Imam Kazim (PBUH) in northern Baghdad, where tens of thousands of mourners chanted "Death to America!"
The mourners, many of them in tears, chanted, “No, No, America,” and “Death to America, death to Israel.” Mohammed Fadl, a mourner dressed in black, said the funeral is an expression of loyalty to the slain leaders. “It is a painful strike, but it will not shake us,” he said.
“The broad participation in this procession proves the public’s condemnation of America and its allies for their human rights abuses while claiming to fight terrorism,” said one of the marchers, Ali al-Khatib.
“It is necessary to take revenge on the murderers. The martyrs got the prize they wanted - the prize of martyrdom.”
Dressed in black, mourners waved white Hashd flags and massive portraits of Iranian and Iraqi leaders, furiously calling for "revenge".
The crowds headed south to a point near the Green Zone, the high-security district home to government offices and foreign embassies, including America's.
Mourners later brought the bodies by car to the Shia holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad. The procession ended in Najaf, another sacred Shia city where Muhandis and the other Iraqis were laid to rest.
The bodies of the Iranian martyrs will be flown to Iran, which has declared three days of mourning.
Many Iraqis condemned the US attack, regarding Soleimani as a hero for his role in defeating the Daesh terror group that had seized wide swathes of north and central Iraq in 2014.
Iraq, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran, condemned the airstrike as an act of “aggression” and called it an attack on its national sovereignty.
Abdel Mahdi warned Friday that the US strike would "spark a devastating war in Iraq", while President Barham Saleh pleaded for "voices of reason" to prevail.
Iraqi factions have called on Parliament to revoke the security agreement allowing for the deployment of US forces on Iraqi soil.
Iraqi lawmakers were to convene in emergency session on Sunday and expected to hold a vote.
Gaza honors General
Illustrating Soleimani’s regional reach, Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, including the territory’s Hamas leaders, opened a mourning site for the martyred general.
Flags of the United States and Israel were laid on the ground for visitors to tread on as they entered, passing murals of Soleimani. The flags were later set on fire.
Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas official, said the killing of Soleimani was “a loss for Palestine and the resistance.”
“We are loyal to those who stood with the resistance and with Palestine and we hold the US administration and the Zionist occupation fully responsible for the consequences of this deplorable crime,” said Radwan.
Iran has long provided aid to Palestinian resistance groups Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
Tehran has already named Soleimani's deputy, Esmail Qaani, to replace him.
On Saturday, billboards appeared on major streets in Iran showing Soleimani and carrying the warning from Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei that “harsh revenge” awaits the US.
Iranian television also aired images of a ceremony honoring Soleimani at a mosque in the holy city of Qom, where a red flag was unfurled above the minarets.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Soleimani’s home in Tehran to express his condolences.
“The Americans did not realize what a great mistake they made,” Rouhani said. “They will see the effects of this criminal act, not only today but for years to come.”
Later, he told Qatar’s visiting Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani that the US will be responsible for “all the consequences of this terrorist act in the region” and will “pay a heavy price” for the assassination.
The Qatari minister made an unplanned trip to Tehran. Qatar hosts American forces at the Al-Udeid Air Base and has often served as a regional mediator.
Rouhani said Iran expects friendly nations and neighbor states to “condemn America clearly” over its “crime”.
Sheikh Mohammed expressed condolences over the assassination of General Soleimani, saying Qatar is “deeply concerned” about “such unprecedented actions”
America’s ‘act of war’
Tensions between the US and Iran have steadily intensified since Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and restore crippling sanctions.
Trump said Friday he had decided to "terminate" Iran's military mastermind to prevent an "imminent" attack on US diplomats and troops. Democratic critics of the Republican president said Trump’s order was reckless and that he had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.
"We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war," Trump insisted.
He said Soleimani should have been killed "many years ago".
His administration claimed Soleimani was plotting a series of attacks that endangered American troops and officials, without providing evidence.
But the strike – which killed four more Iranian IRGC members and four Hashd fighters – infuriated Iran, whose ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, called it an "act of war" by its arch-enemy.
“In fact, it was an act of war on the part of the United States against the Iranian people,” Takht-Ravanchi told CNN on Friday.
The strike was “a new chapter, which is tantamount to opening a war against Iran,” he reiterated.
"The response for a military action is a military action,” the envoy noted. “By whom? By... when? Where? That is for the future to witness,” he said.
If the US is in possession of alleged evidence showing that Soleimani “was planning an imminent major attack against American interests, they should show it,” the envoy said.
Switzerland, whose embassy in Tehran represents US interests, confirmed Saturday its chargé d'affaires had on Friday been "informed of Iran's position and in turn delivered the message of the United States".
The IRGC said Washington had used "diplomatic measures" to urge Tehran to respond "in proportion" to the strike – a message Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed as "foolish".
Zarif said Friday the US practically paved the way for its own "elimination" from the region by staging "the cowardly act of state terrorism”.
He said Iran reserves the “legal right” to respond to the assassination “in the right place, at the right time, and in the manner that it sees fit.”
Zarif also spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, who argued that "the dangerous US military operation violates the basic norms of international relations and will aggravate regional tensions and turbulence," according to Chinese media.
Meanwhile, Russia said in a statement that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with Zarif over the phone on Friday to discuss the assassination of General Soleimani.
“Lavrov expressed his condolences over the killing,” the statement said. “The ministers stressed that such actions by the United States grossly violate the norms of international law.”
Amid the tensions, the Pentagon said up to 3,500 additional US troops would be dispatched to Iraq's southern neighbor Kuwait, to boost some 14,000 reinforcements already deployed to the region last year.
There are approximately 5,200 US troops stationed across Iraq.
The US has ordered all citizens to leave Iraq and closed its embassy in Baghdad, where thousands staged two days of violent protests earlier this week in which they breached the compound.
Britain and France also warned their citizens to avoid or strictly limit travel in Iraq.
No one was hurt in the embassy protests, which came in response to US airstrikes that killed more than two dozen Hashd fighters in Iraq. The US said the strikes were in response to a rocket attack that killed a US contractor in northern Iraq, which Washington blamed on Iraqi fighters.
A spokesman for NATO said on Saturday the Western military alliance has suspended a training mission in Iraq.
“The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount,” acting NATO spokesman Dylan White said. “We continue to take all precautions necessary. NATO’s mission is continuing, but training activities are temporarily suspended.”
Global powers warned Friday that the assassination of Gen. Soleimani could spark a dangerous new escalation, with many calling for restraint.
Italy’s foreign minister meanwhile condemned the strike that killed Soleimani, in a rare criticism of the US strike from a Western ally.
In a Facebook post, Luigi Di Maio said the use of violence threatens to bring “destabilization and devastating humanitarian and migratory effects.”
Italy has long been one of Iran’s biggest trading partners in the European Union, and it has more than 800 regular soldiers and some 80 special forces in Iraq.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, took to Twitter to reiterate the kingdom’s call for “self-restraint” to avoid “unbearable consequences.”
Another Saudi official said that the US did not give a heads-up to Saudi Arabia or its other Persian Gulf allies before carrying out the strike.
Afghanistan's second Vice President Muhammad Sarwar Danish on Saturday hailed General Qassem Soleimani as a "prominent figure" in the battle against Daesh, saying his assassination has complicated the situation in the region.
Afghanistan's chief executive of the National Unity Government lamented the US assassination of Soleimani.
"We express our condolence about this occurrence to Sardar Soleimani's family, the government and people of Iran," Abdullah Abdullah wrote on his Facebook page.
Iran, he emphasized, has stood with the people of Afghanistan during times of war and strife and been hosting millions of Afghan immigrants for many years.
AFP, AP, Reuters and Press TV contributed to this story.