As tensions with Iran increased in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, thousands of Iraqis gathered in central Baghdad on Sunday to celebrate the anniversary of the US assassination of a top Iranian general.
Some chanted anti-American slogans calling for revenge for the deaths of General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed by a US drone attack on January 3, 2020.
The roads to Tahrir Square were closed and security was tight as the crowd gathered to respond to a call by a powerful Iraqi militia to rally to protest the targeted attack near the Baghdad airport To demand withdrawal of US troops.
On the way to the airport, a mock funeral procession took place on Saturday, in which thousands of people took part.
Posters by the general and al-Muhandis adorned both sides of the road that led to the airport, and the site of the bombing was turned into a shrine-like area cordoned off with red ropes. A picture of Soleimani and al-Muhandis was placed in the center as mourners lit candles.
Traces of splinters were still visible on the asphalt and the surrounding walls.
The protests came less than 24 hours after Iran announced that it would “as soon as possible” enrich uranium in its underground Fordo nuclear facility by up to 20 percent, taking its program a technical step away from weapon quality.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that Tehran had informed its inspectors of the decision, adding that “inspectors are present in Iran around the clock and have regular access to Fordo.”
Iran did not say when it wanted to promote enrichment.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also went on Twitter on Saturday to point out that Iraqi intelligence agencies had indicated that “Israeli agent provocateurs” were planning attacks against Americans.
This would bring Trump “into a bond with a fake Casus Belli,” he wrote.
“Watch out for a trap @realDonaldTrump. Any fireworks will backfire heavily, especially against the same BFFs, ”added Zarif, which appeared to be a veiled threat to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Zarif’s remarks, but on Sunday the country’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz dismissed the claim as “nonsense,” Reuters reported.
Instead, Steinitz told Kan public broadcaster that it was Israel that needed to be alert to possible Iranian strikes.
Zarif’s comments came after a US official told NBC News on Friday that there was growing evidence that Iran might be planning an attack on American forces or interests in the Middle East.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that reading Iran’s intentions was “difficult and sometimes unpredictable” but the clues were taken seriously before Soleimani’s death date.
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Last week the US B-52 bombers flew into the Middle East in an “intentional appearance”, US Central Command said, in the second such show of force this month.
The aircraft carrier of the USS Nimitz was also ordered to return After a 10-month deployment in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, the Pentagon said its home port is in the United States.
The US also recently charged an Iran-backed militia with a rocket attack on the Baghdad International Zone on December 20, which resulted in 21 rockets being fired. Nobody was injured or killed.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.