Drones shot down over US base as Iraqis mourn Suleimani and Al Muhandis

Iranian general and Iraqi militia leader died in an American drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020

US forces shot down two "suicide drones" flying near their base at Baghdad's international airport on Monday, the second anniversary of the deaths of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in an American drone strike.

Soldiers at Camp Victory brought down the drones with a counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-Ram) defence system about 4am local time, a police officer told The National.

He confirmed the authenticity of photos shared on social media that showed the messages “Leader’s revenge” and “Suleimani’s revenge” on the drones' wings.

A message painted on the wing of one of two drones shot down by US troops near Baghdad's international airport. Photo: US-led International Coalition

Suleimani and Muhandis were killed on January 3, 2020, in a strike ordered by Donald trump, who was US president at the time. American drones fired three missiles at their convoy as it left the airport, killing the two men and several aides.

The shooting down of the drones on Monday came hours after a commemoration ceremony held outside the airport on Sunday night. Hundreds of supporters of the government-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of mainly Iran-allied Shiite factions, gathered outside the airport, although few militia officials turned up.

In Iran, vigils for Suleimani were being organised across the country but marches and parades such as those of the past two years ago are not expected this time because of Covid-19.

Hundreds of billboards praising the general were erected in Tehran and leaders across the country have been vowing revenge and calling for the US to be held accountable.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech ahead of the anniversary, appearing to cry as he recounted how Suleimani was cherished. On Monday, President Ebrahim Raisi vowed to avenge Suleimani's death unless Mr Trump is put on trial.

As the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, Suleimani was the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars and policy in the Middle East, including Iraq.

Among ordinary Iranians, respect for the general was mixed with anger at the country's leadership.

Mina, a 30-year-old in Tehran, said that despite a pragmatic view of Suleimani’s role, few people she knew condoned the moves that Iran has made across the region over the past decade. “We have helped destroy countries and it has been disastrous; spending millions on other people and other countries when we ourselves are struggling,” she said.

And while she took part in the marches staged after the general's death in 2020, this was largely fuelled by the anger towards Mr Trump, she told The National.

Hassan, who also asked to be identified by only one name, said he respected Suleimani for doing his job properly, unlike the government.

He also credited the general for keeping ISIS out of Iran. “When other countries around us were suffering terrorism we were able to be safe and not worry. For that I will have respect for him,” he said.

However, he had no plans to attend any vigils or commemorations, citing a new wave of Covid-19 as his reason for staying home.

A billboard depicting the late Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Tehran. AFP

Commemorations of Suleimani's assassination were also held by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and the Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In Baghdad on Sunday, mourners lit candles and placed flowers alongside pictures of Suleimani and Al Muhandis at the spot where the missiles hit the convoy and around the charred and crumpled wreckage of their car, which is mounted on a marble plinth.

Some waved Iraqi and PMF flags, and chanted slogans vowing revenge on the US. Poems in praise of the two men were recited from a podium as some cried and beat their chests in grief.

A black-clad young woman wore a headband with the words: “We are the sons of Al Muhandis”. Another man held a poster of the two men with the slogan: “The heroes of liberation fights”, referring to role of the PMF, under Suleimani's guidance, in the government's three-year battle to drive ISIS out of Iraq.

"The best way to honour their pure blood is to push for the US troops' withdrawal from Iraq," a man told the crowd from a podium.

"No, no to America," he shouted as the crowd chanted back.

After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, Suleimani played a key role in forming successive Shiite-led governments in Iraq as well as forming, training and funding Iraqi Shiite militias.

His assassination was the culmination of a long-running dispute between pro-Tehran militias and the US. It sent shockwaves across the region and sparked fears of a direct military confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

Iran-backed Shiite politicians and militias have been calling for the withdrawal of US troops stationed in Iraq as part of a global anti-ISIS coalition since late 2017, when Iraq declared victory over the terrorist group.

Tensions escalated in late 2018 when the US accused Kataib Hezbollah, established by Al Muhandis, of attacking Iraqi military bases hosting American troops, and launched strikes against Iraqi militias in Iraq and Syria.

The US said at the time that Suleimani was planning imminent action against US personnel in Iraq, a country long torn between the competing demands of Washington and Tehran, its principal allies.

Five days after Suleimani's killing, Iran fired missiles at an airbase in Iraq housing US troops and another near Erbil in the north, without causing casualties. Since then, US interests in Iraq have regularly come under attack from rockets, drones and roadside bombs.

Updated: January 3rd 2022, 2:11 PM