Copy of 2020-01-04T082324Z_1789762754_RC2W8E97NTWD_RTRMADP_3_IRAQ-SECURITY-FUNERAL-1578133911107
Mourners gather around the car which carries the coffins of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, who were killed in a US air strike at Baghdad airport on Friday. Image Credit: REUTERS

Baghdad: Thousands of mourners marched Saturday in a funeral procession through Baghdad for Iran’s top general and Iraqi militant leaders, who were killed in a US air strike, chanting “Death to America”.

Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Al Quds force and mastermind of its regional security strategy, was killed in an air strike early Friday near the Iraqi capital’s international airport that has caused regional tensions to soar.

Iran has vowed harsh retaliation, raising fears of an all-out war. US President Donald Trump says he ordered the strike to prevent a conflict. His administration says Soleimani was plotting a series of attacks that endangered American troops and officials, without providing evidence.

Washington has dispatched 3,000 troop reinforcements to the region.

Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s regional policy of mobilising militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, including in the war against the Islamic State group. He was also blamed for attacks on US troops and American allies going back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The mourners, mostly men in black military fatigues, carried Iraqi flags and the flags of Iran-backed militias that are fiercely loyal to Soleimani. They were also mourning Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, a senior Iraqi militia commander who was killed in the same strike.

The procession began at the Imam Kadhim shrine in Baghdad, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam. Mourners marched in the streets alongside militia vehicles in a solemn procession.

The mourners, many of them in tears, chanted: “No, No, America,” and “Death to America, death to Israel”. Mohammad 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.

Two helicopters hovered over the procession, which was attended by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and leaders of Iran-backed militias.

The gates to Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the U.S. Embassy, were closed.

As tensions soared across the region, there were reports overnight of an airstrike on a convoy of Iran-backed militiamen north of Baghdad. Hours later, the Iraqi army denied any airstrike had taken place. The US-led coalition also denied carrying out any air strike.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed militias, and security officials had reported the air strike in Taji, north of the capital. An Iraqi security official had said five people were killed and two vehicles were destroyed.

It was not immediately clear if another type of explosion had occurred.

Iraq, which is closely allied with both Washington and Tehran, condemned the air strike that killed Soleimani and called it an attack on its national sovereignty. Parliament is to meet for an emergency session on Sunday, and the government has come under mounting pressure to expel the 5,200 American troops based in the country, who are there to help prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

The US has ordered all citizens to leave Iraq and closed its embassy in Baghdad, where Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters staged two days of violent protests earlier this week in which they breached the compound.

The British government has warned travellers not to go anywhere in the country except for the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and there only for trips considered essential. In its advisory, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said the security situation “could deteriorate quickly,” saying citizens already in Iraq should consider leaving.

No one was hurt in the embassy protests, which came in response to US air strikes that killed 25 Iran-backed militiamen in Iraq and Syria. The US said the strikes were in response to a rocket attack that killed a US contractor in northern Iraq, which Washington blamed on the militias.

The killing of Soleimani comes after months of rising tensions between the US and Iran stemming from Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and restore crippling sanctions.

The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has led Iran to openly abandon commitments under the deal. The US has also blamed Iran for a wave of increasingly provocative attacks in the region, including the sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf and an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure in September that temporarily halved its production.

Iran denied involvement in those attacks, but admitted to shooting down a US surveillance drone in June that it said had strayed into its airspace.

Global powers had warned Friday that the killing of Soleimani could spark a dangerous new escalation, with many calling for restraint.

In Iran on Saturday, every major newspaper and state-controlled TV broadcast focused on Soleimani’s death, with even reformist newspapers like Aftab-e-Yazd warning that “revenge is on the way”.

Billboards have appeared on major streets showing Soleimani’s face, many carrying the warning from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that “harsh revenge” awaits the US.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate in the country’s political establishment, 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.”

In Saudi Arabia, a longtime foe of Iran, the English-language daily Arab News printed a front-page editorial showing Soleimani’s face, headlined: “He will kill no more.” Last year, the newspaper promoted the idea of “surgical” US air strikes on Iran after a drone attack on an oil pipeline in May.

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 confirmed to The Associated Press that the US did not give a heads-up to Saudi Arabia or its other Gulf allies before carrying out the strike that killed Soleimani. The official was not authorised to discuss security matters and so spoke on condition of anonymity.