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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 7 March 2021

Iran-backed militias commemorate Qassem Suleimani at Baghdad's Tahrir Square and airport

Tense times in Iraq as Tehran seeks to show power one year after the killing of its leading general

Thousands of Iraqis thronged outside Baghdad International Airport and in Tahrir Square on Saturday night and throughout Sunday to mark the first anniversary of the deaths of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, Iraq’s top militia leader, in a US drone strike.

Dozens of buses brought people to Tahrir Square from across Baghdad and Shiite-dominated provinces in central and southern Iraq. Fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a government-sanctioned umbrella group of mainly Iran-allied Shiite militias, were sent to search the people heading to the square before they met the government checkpoint.

Large posters featuring photos of Al Muhandis and Suleimani were posted on the Turkish Restaurant building, an icon of last year's pro-reform protests, in which many demonstrators criticised Iran's influence on Iraqi politics. A big screen mounted on a truck showed videos of the slain leaders while touring the front lines and mingling with fighters.

Some of the mourners held Iraqi and PMF flags, while others raised pictures of Suleimani and Al Muhandis, chanting anti-American slogans.

"America is the great Satan," one group of mourners chanted as they marched to the square.

Murtadha Asad, 27, arrived early on Sunday morning after attending a ceremony near Baghdad's International Airport on Saturday evening.

"The death of the two martyrs has motivated the Hashid," Mr Asad, who took part in the fighting in and around Salahueddi provinces between 2014 and 2016, told The National.

Mr Asad, who held the Iraqi flag and wrapped the PMF flag around his neck, described US troops as "occupying forces" and demanded their immediate withdrawal from the country.

"If they will not leave by political and peaceful means, we will rely on military operations to expel them."

Along with her two daughters, Umm Zainab stood holding a picture of both men and Iraqi flags.

"We want to tell our beloved martyrs that we will continue on your path and what you started will not end after your martyrdom," said Um Zainab, in black abaya and wearing a face mask and gloves.

"We will continue until we kick the occupier out of our country," she added.

To achieve that goal, she said: "We need first to get rid of its agents among us whether they are politicians or normal people. Without their help, the Americans wouldn't be able to kill our leaders."

Not all Iraqis were happy with the site of October 2019’s protests being used to mourn a Iranian general.

Although Tahrir Square is for all Iraqis, "it is painful to see politically-motivated demonstrations planned and organised from outside Iraq," pro-reform activist Hashim Al Jabouri, told The National.

He sees putting up posters around the square as "provocation mainly to the government."

Security was tight as the crowds gathered at Baghdad airport on Saturday evening, waving Iraqi and PMF flags and chanting pro-PMF slogans as women in black abayas and face masks placed lit candles and red roses at the scene.

The charred and crumpled wreckage of two cars, mounted on a round marble plinth, was unveiled on the median of the road outside the airport to serve as a reminder of the attack. Framed pictures of the two men and aides who died with them lined the wall along the road, which bore the slogan: “Here is the crime of American terrorism.”

Suleimani, the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars and policy in the Middle East including Iraq, arrived at Baghdad airport shortly after midnight on January 3 and was met by Al Muhandis, leader of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq. A few minutes after they left the airport, US drones fired three missiles at their two-car convoy in an attack ordered by President Donald Trump.

“Haj Qassem is the motivator of Hashed. He is an inspiration for steadfastness,” Falih Al Fayyadh, chairman of PMF, told the crowd, using the Arabic name of the group.

He praised Al Muhandis as the “engineer” of the PMF who “established, built, organised and led” the group described by Mr Trump as “villainous”.

The gathering continued until dawn on Sunday, with the mourners often interrupting the speeches with chants such as: “No, no America. No, no Israel.”

The killing of Suleimani followed a series of tit-for-tat attacks between Iraqi militias and US forces in 2019, culminating with a siege of the US embassy in Baghdad in December by crowds of PMF supporters.

Mr Trump said he ordered the strike because Suleimani, who he described as the “number one terrorist anywhere in the world”, was planning to target American diplomats and military personnel inside Iraq.

Tension in the region has risen as the anniversary of the attack approached. Washington sent B-52 bombers to fly over the region in a warning to Iran against retaliatory attacks. Tehran have promised to avenge Suleimani’s death while accusing the US of seeking grounds for another attack.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Mr Trump of trying to fabricate a “pretext for war” after he blamed Tehran for a rocket strike on the US embassy on December 20.

On Saturday, Mr Zarif suggested that Israel would try to provoke the US into launching attacks.

“New intelligence from Iraq indicate that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans – putting an outgoing Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli. Be careful of a trap,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Any fireworks will backfire badly, particularly against your same BFFs.”

On Friday, Iran’s judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi told a commemoration event at Tehran University that the US “will witness a severe revenge. What has come so far has only been glimpses.”

Iran-backed Iraqi militias have sought revenge by launching bomb and rocket attacks against the US Embassy in Baghdad, at military bases hosting American troops and at logistics convoys resupplying the bases. They have ignored the government's call to stop the attacks after the US threatened to close its embassy.

Earlier on Saturday prominent militia leaders visited the final resting place of Al Muhandis at Wadi Al Salam cemetery in the southern city of Najaf.

One of them was the leader of the Asaib Ahl Al Haq militia, Qais Al Khazali, who wrote in the visitors’ book: “I swear to God that we will continue on their path and exact revenge.”

Iraqi authorities have named the road to Baghdad airport after Al Muhandis. A big billboard has been set up along the route that shows Al Muhandis at the capital’s Tahrir Square with a smile on his face as he kneels to hug a child approaching him with a medal. Suleimani stands behind him in his familiar khaki uniform, holding flowers. Both men are surrounded by Iraqi men, women and children of all ages holding Iraqi and Iranian flags.

“Just for you, the symbol of heroism,” the billboard slogan reads.

Updated: January 3, 2021 10:59 PM

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