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Thousands mourn Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at funeral in Baghdad

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Thousands mourn Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at funeral in Baghdad
Copyright  AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP
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Thousands of mourners chanting “America is the Great Satan” marched in a funeral procession on Saturday for Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian elite general killed in a US drone 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.

Soleimani, the mastermind of Iran's regional security strategy, was killed in a pre-dawn in an airstrike near the city's airport.

Iran has vowed harsh retaliation, raising fears of an all-out war.

In other key developments on Saturday:

The funeral 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.

Many 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.

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

Protests in the US

In the US, a few hundreds gathered in front of the White House in Washington, DC on Saturday to protest the killing of Soleimani, with signs reading "No war against Iran".

Meetings were organised across the US in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Situation 'could deteriorate quickly'

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 U.S.-led coalition also denied carrying out any airstrike.

Iraq, which is closely allied with both Washington and Tehran, called Soleimani's killing an attack on its national sovereignty. Its 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 within its borders.

The U.S. 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 travelers not to go anywhere in the country except for the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, saying the security situation “could deteriorate quickly."

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 US has also blamed Iran for a wave of increasingly provocative attacks in the region, including the sabotage of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and an attack on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure in September that temporarily halved its production.

'Great mistake'

On Saturday, billboards appeared on major streets in Iran 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.”