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04.01.2020 Europe

Fresh strike hits pro-Iran convoy in Iraq ahead of Soleimani funeral

By RFI
REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
LISTEN JAN 4, 2020

A new air strike has targeted pro-Iran fighters in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, hours before a march of mourning for Iran's Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary heavyweight Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed on Friday in a precision US drone strike.

Friday's assassinations were the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between Washington and Tehran, sparking fears of a proxy war in Iraq. 

Almost exactly 24 hours later, a new strike targeted a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary network whose Shia-majority factions have close ties to Iran, the group said in a statement.

It did not say who was responsible but Iraqi state television reported it was a US air strike.

A police source told AFP the bombardment north of Baghdad left "dead and wounded," without providing a specific toll. There was no immediate comment from the US.

The assassination of Soleimani, who had led the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' foreign operations branch and was Iran's pointman on Iraq, rattled the region.

US officials said the 62-year-old, who had been blacklisted by the US, was killed when a drone hit his vehicle near Baghdad's international airport.

A total of five Revolutionary Guards and five Hashed members were killed in the strike.

Mourning march
Their bodies were to be taken through an elaborate mourning procession on Saturday, beginning with a state funeral in Baghdad and ending in the holy shrine city of Najaf.

The bodies of the guards would then be sent to Iran, which had declared three days of mourning for Soleimani.

Tehran has already named Soleimani's deputy, Esmail Qaani, to succeed him.

Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly promised "severe revenge" and tens of thousands of protesters in Tehran torched US flags and chanted "death to America."

US President Donald Trump hailed the operation, saying he decided to "terminate" Soleimani after uncovering he was preparing an "imminent" attack on US diplomats and troops.

He insisted Washington did not seek a wider conflict, saying: "We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war."

US troops deployed
But the Pentagon said hours later that 3,000 to 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division's Global Response Force would be dispatched to Kuwait.

A US official had told AFP that some of the 750 troops already sent from that unit had arrived in Baghdad and would reinforce security at the US embassy there.

Some 14,000 other troops have already been deployed as reinforcements to the Middle East this year, reflecting steadily growing tensions with Iran.

There are approximately 5,200 US troops deployed across Iraq to help local forces ensure a lasting defeat of jihadists.

Pro-Iran factions in Iraq have seized on Soleimani's death to push parliament to revoke the security agreement allowing their deployment on Iraqi soil.

Lawmakers are set to meet on Sunday for an emergency session on the strike and are expected to hold a vote.

Europe

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