Thousands of mourners flooded the streets of Baghdad Saturday, and called for revenge against the United States after Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani was killed in a drone strike early Friday morning.
Chants of “Death to America, death to Israel” and “We will take our revenge!” emanated from the crowd, according to The Associated Press. Other mourners chanted “America is the Great Satan” as they made their way through Baghdad’s streets.
Soleimani, who led the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), was killed alongside several Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leaders in a convoy at Baghdad’s international airport Friday.
The strike, authorized by US President Donald Trump, escalated tensions between Iran and the United States after an already tense week in which Iranian-backed militia members stormed the US embassy in Baghdad in response to a US airstrike on Iran-backed fighters based in Syria and Iraq that killed 25.
That airstrike was, in turn, retaliation for the death of an American contractor in Iraq, who was killed in a rocket strike in Kirkuk, Iraq that also wounded four US troops — US officials blamed the attack on Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. The leader of Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the Friday morning drone strike.
The funeral processions for Soleimani and al-Muhandis began in Kadhimuyah, a neighborhood in Iraq’s capital city Baghdad, and drew large crowds of Iraqi mourners. Banners of Iranian-backed paramilitary groups in Iraq were waved in the crowds, and officials from both Iraq and Iran were spotted amongst the mourners.
#Iraq mourners, mostly supporters of powerful paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi (PMF), gather in Hurriya Square in central Baghdad as body of #Iran general #QassemSuleimani comes through. They chant ‘you did a lot for us’ in reference to the former elite Quds Force leader. pic.twitter.com/3wnCeGGnVt— Arwa Ibrahim (@arwaib) January 4, 2020
In the wake of the strike that killed Soleimani, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for three days of mourning before seeking retaliation, saying “a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”
What that response will look like is unclear. Experts have argued that it could take the form of cyberattacks, attacks on US military positions and diplomatic outposts in the Middle East, or — as the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi has reported — attempted kidnappings and executions of US citizens in the most extreme case. Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told Vox’s Dylan Scott she believes Iran “will look for the time and place of its own choosing in terms of a response,” and that it is likely the country’s leaders will use the assassination of Soleimani to shore up support at home before trying to strike back at the US.
As a precaution, however, the Department of Homeland Security has warned federal and local officials to work to secure their computer systems, and the US has urged all citizens to make their way out of Iraq after closing its embassy in Baghdad.
Soleimani’s death reflects the complex nature of Iran’s relationship with Iraq
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured Americans that Soleimani’s death would be celebrated in Iraq — and even Iran — tweeting out a video Thursday that Pompeo claimed showed Iraqis celebrating in the streets after he was killed. But the Saturday morning funeral processions speak to a much more complex situation on the ground, one that illustrates both Soleimani’s far-reaching power in the region and the complex political relationship between Iran and Iraq.
For instance, while the funeral was a stark show of support for the deceased military leader and his country, Iraq’s recent national protest movement has brought considerable anti-Iranian sentiment into the open.
In November, three Iraqi protesters were killed after they stormed an Iranian consulate in the city of Karabala. The demonstrators were publicly pushing back on Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, and their deaths came as anti-government protesters in Baghdad had fatal clashes with security forces. As Vox’s Jen Kirby reported:
The unrest in Iraq began in early October, with Iraqis protesting the lack of job opportunities and high unemployment, and what they saw as the government’s inability to deliver basic services, like electricity, and repair badly damaged infrastructure. These socioeconomic grievances morphed into larger anti-corruption protests. Anger over the Iraqi government’s incompetence and lack of accountability has also fueled Iraqis’ anger toward Iran, which demonstrators feel has outsized control over Iraq’s politicians and domestic affairs.
Ben Van Heuvelen, the editor-in-chief of Iraq Oil Report, told Vox that Soleimani was a divisive figure who encapsulated the complex nature of the current Iraq-Iran relationship — and who represented what protesters are most incensed about when it comes to Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics.
For some Iraqis, Van Heuvelen said, Soleimani is an indispensable part of Iraq’s political scene: a trusted mediator, a powerful dealmaker, and a reliable force against the ISIS incursion in the region. For others, he represents Iran’s deep and longstanding meddling in Iraq. He’s also been directly involved in formulating the response to Iraq’s protest movement, in which government-backed forces have killed over 400 demonstrators.
“Even those Iraqis who are happy to see him gone are probably unhappy about the manner in which he was killed,” Van Heuvelen told Vox. “Over the past three months, one major grievance expressed by Iraq’s protest movement is that the political class has failed to establish a strong sovereign state and has allowed Iraq to be a battleground for US and Iranian proxy conflict.”
Van Heuvelen added, “So, for the demonstrators, Soleimani has been something of a villain — the personification of Iranian meddling — yet the American assassination of Soleimani is also a painful symbol of Iraq’s humiliating loss of sovereignty.”
The Iraqi government has condemned the airstrike as just that: an attack on its sovereignty. In response, the Iraqi Parliament is scheduled to meet for an emergency session on Sunday, and will debate whether to revoke the legal authorization for more than 5,000 US forces to be in the country. US soldiers are currently stationed across the nation to combat a potential resurgence of ISIS.
Regardless of what the politicians decide during the session, Van Heuvelen said the killing of Soleimani has united both the pro- and anti-Iran factions in Iraq around one key concern: “All Iraqis are justifiably worried that Iraq will suffer the most from any further escalation of US-Iran hostilities.”