By Ahmed Aboulenein and Maha El Dahan
BAGHDAD, Jan 4 (Reuters) – With shouts of “Death to America”, tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq on Saturday to mourn Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader who were killed in a U.S. air strike that has raised the spectre of wider conflict in the Middle East.
On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighbourhood and two more rockets were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, the Iraqi military said in a statement. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
With security worries rising after Friday’s strike, the NATO alliance and a separate U.S.-led mission suspended their programmes to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.
“The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount. We continue to take all precautions necessary,” acting NATO spokesman Dylan White said in a statement.
Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign legions, was killed in the U.S. strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport. The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in its confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.
France stepped up diplomatic initiatives on Saturday to ease tensions in the Middle East. French President Emmanuel Macron talked with Iraq President Barham Salih, Macron’s office said.
“The two presidents agreed to remain in close contact to avoid any further escalation in tensions and in order to act to ensure stability in Iraq and the broader region,” a statement from Macron’s office said.
Macron also discussed the situation with the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Gholamali Abuhamzeh, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said Tehran would punish Americans “wherever they are in reach”, and raised the prospect of possible attacks on ships in the Gulf.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad urged American citizens to leave Iraq. Dozens of American employees of foreign oil companies left the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Friday.
Close U.S. ally Britain warned its nationals to avoid all travel to Iraq, outside the autonomous Kurdistan region, and to avoid all but essential travel to Iran.
Soleimani, 62, was Iran‘s pre-eminent military leader – head of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran‘s spreading influence in the Middle East.
The Iraqi militia leader killed in the strike, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.
A PMF-organised procession carrying the bodies of Soleimani, Muhandis and other Iraqis killed in the U.S. strike took place in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Mourners included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armoured personnel carriers in the procession. Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and Iraqi militia commander Hadi al-Amiri, a close Iran ally and the top candidate to succeed Muhandis, attended.
Mourners later brought the bodies by car to the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala south of Baghdad. The procession was to end in Najaf, another sacred Shi’ite city where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.
Soleimani’s body will be transferred on Saturday to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday it will be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran‘s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday that Soleimani had been plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. Democratic critics said the Republican president’s action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.
The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militia attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.
‘VITAL AMERICAN TARGETS’
On Friday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Soleimani’s death would intensify Tehran’s resistance to the United States and Israel.
Abuhamzeh, the Revolutionary Guards commander in Kerman province, mentioned a series of possible targets for reprisals including the Gulf waterway through which about a third of the world’s shipborne oil is exported to global markets.
“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there,” Abuhamzeh was quoted as saying on Friday evening by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.
“Vital American targets in the region have long since been identified by Iran … Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he said, referring to Israel’s largest city.
In Iran, some people worried that Soleimani’s death might push the country into ruinous war with a superpower.
“I feel so sad for Soleimani’s death but what if America and Iran start a war? I have children. What if they send my (university student) son to war?” said Monireh, a retired teacher.
Mohamed Raad, a political leader in Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah movement, said retaliation by the Iran-backed “axis of resistance” – militia groups in countries from Lebanon to Yemen – would be decisive, al-Mayadeen TV reported on Saturday.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Maha El Dahan Additional reporting by Kate Holton in London, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Nadine Awadallah in Beirut, John Chalmers in Brussels Writing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)