The Pentagon is sending 3,000 more US troops to the Middle East and the IDF is on high alert as Israel and the US brace for retaliatory military action from Tehran in the aftermath of Friday’s US targeted assassination of Iran’s military chief Qasem Soleimani.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces – an umbrella body of paramilitary groups – was also killed in the strike on Soleimani’s convoy at Baghdad International Airport.
Iran has threatened retaliatory action against 35 US targets in the Middle East, Israel and against vessels in the international shipping route in the Gulf, known as the Strait of Hormuz. Moderate Middle Eastern countries are also bracing for Iranian violence. Military pundits have speculated the US is most vulnerable in Iraq, and that Tehran is likely to set its sights there.
On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone near the US Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighborhood 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.
The attack has significantly increased tensions in the already volatile Middle East, where military actions been steadily increasing in the last year between Iran and its regional enemies such as Israel, as well as between Tehran and the US.
The Israel Air Force, military intelligence and IDF troops along the country’s borders are on high alert. Israel has warned terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, via Egypt, not to participate in any Iranian retaliation.
The security cabinet is set to meet on Sunday afternoon to discuss the growing threats.
Iran reserved the right to take revenge against the United States for the death of Soleimani, Iranian General Gholamali Abuhamzeh said in comments made late on Friday and reported on Saturday by Tasnim.
“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there ... vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago ... some 35 US targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned on Friday that “Soleimani’s martyrdom will make Iran more decisive to resist America’s expansionism and to defend our Islamic values. With no doubt, Iran and other freedom-seeking countries in the region will take his revenge.”
The NATO alliance and a separate US-led mission suspended their programs to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.
The US 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 US 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.
On Friday, Israeli embassies and consuls around the world are on high alert, with security was bolstered at some embassies as well, according to ynet.
Moreover, Internet, landline and mobile phone systems in the Golan Heights were experiencing outages, according to Kan news. There seemed to be a connections between the outages and security preparations along the northern border, the Hebrew site reported.
Earlier in the day, the IDF announced the Mount Hermon ski resort would be closed to tourists, also due to the risky security situation. Rockets fired from Syria have targeted the site in the past. By Friday night the IDF reopened the site, which was closed once again on Saturday morning due to the weather.
A senior official in US President Donald Trump’s administration said Soleimani had been planning imminent attacks on US personnel across the Middle East. The top Iranian leader has in the past been the target of foiled Israeli assassination attempts.
A State Department official said Soleimani was the “architect of Iran’s major terrorist attacks over the last 20 years. He’s killed 608 Americans in Iraq alone.”
According to the Pentagon, Soleimani was responsible for approving the attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad that took place earlier last week. The Los Angeles Times reported that Trump approved the operation already on Monday. There has been some speculation that Israel knew of the attack in advance, but no public official conformation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke three times last week on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Democratic critics said the order by the Republican president was reckless and that he had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.
“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”
Trump said the United States was not seeking regime change in Iran, but that Tehran must end what he called its aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters.
Pompeo told Fox News he spoken with many regional and European partners since the attack to explain the US actions and to seek their support.
“They’ve all been fantastic. And then talking to our partners in other places that haven’t been quite as good; frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be. The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well.”
On Saturday, tens of thousands of people marched in Baghdad to mourn Soleimani and al-Muhandis shouting “Death to America” and “No Israel.”
The PMF-organized procession that carried the bodies of Soleimani, Muhandis and other Iraqis killed in the US 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 armored personnel carriers in the procession.
Iraqi 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 was expected to 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.
Hamas expressed its “sincere condolences” for the death of a man who “played a major and critical role in supporting Palestinian resistance at all levels.” A spokesperson for the ruling group in the Strip Basem Naim took to Twitter to say that the assassination “opens the doors of the region to all possibilities, except calm & stability.”
Islamic Jihad spokesperson Hamza Bassem stressed that “the axis of resistance will not be defeated, will not be broken, and will consolidate and strengthen in the face of the Zionist-American project.”
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah called for revenge for the attack which killed a “master of the resistance.”
He pledged to “continue his path and to work throughout days and nights to achieve his goals” and stressed that the group “will raise General Suleimani’s flag in all the battlefields and the victories of the Axis of Resistance will augment thanks to his blood.”
Nasrallah warned that “meting out the fair punishment to these criminal assassins, who are the most malign people in the world, will be the responsibility and task of all Resistance Mujahidin around the world.”
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine called for a “comprehensive and continuous coordinated response by resistance forces throughout the region against the US and Israel.”
Qais Kahazali, head of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, stated that the “end result for the US and Israel is defeat.”
IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif warned that “the joy of the Zionists and Americans will in no time turn into mourning.”
French President Emmanuel Macron agreed with his Iraqi counterpart on Saturday to make efforts to dampen tensions in the Middle East Soleimani’s killing.
“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,” Macron’s office said of his telephone discussion with Iraqi President Barham Salih.
Macron also discussed Middle East developments with the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The two leaders underlined the importance of fighting Islamic State and dealing with the political crisis in Libya, Macron’s office said.
Earlier on Saturday, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had discussed the situation in the Middle East with his German foreign minister Heiko Maas and senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi.
Macron is looking to salvage the 2015 deal between Tehran and the six world powers. As a result of the deal, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in 2016 in exchange for limitations on Iran’s nuclear work. Trump’s administration, however, pulled out of the deal in 2018.
“We all noted in particular our agreement in the importance of preserving the stability and sovereignty of Iraq, and the whole of the region in general, as well as the need for Iran to avoid any new violation of the Vienna Agreement,” Le Drian said.
In contrast Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif over the phone on Friday to discuss the killing of Iran’s military chief Qassem Soleimani, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Lavrov expressed his condolences over the killing,” the statement said. “The ministers stressed that such actions by the United States grossly violate the norms of international law.”