US-Iran escalation looms after Soleimani killing: Latest updates

All the latest updates following the US-ordered killing of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

People attend a funeral procession for Soleimani and al-Muhandis in Ahvaz, Iran [Hossein Mersadi/Fars news agency/Reuters]
People attend a funeral procession for Soleimani and al-Muhandis in Ahvaz, Iran [Hossein Mersadi/Fars news agency/Reuters]

Funeral processions to honour Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran‘s elite Quds Force who was killed in a United States air raid in Baghdad began in the Iranian city of Ahvaz early on Sunday, hours after his remains arrived from Iraq.

Soleimani was killed along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi), an Iran-backed umbrella organisation comprising several militias. Several other people were also killed in Friday’s attack.

The move by the US has drawn condemnation from leaders and officials who fear that tensions in the region could escalate drastically. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei warned that “a harsh retaliation is waiting”. 

On Saturday, US President Donald Trump threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacked US citizens or assets.

Sunday, January 5:

Trump reiterates threat against Iran cultural sites

Trump insisted on Sunday that Iranian cultural sites were fair game for the US military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so would constitute a war crime under international law.

The president first raised the prospect of targeting Iranian cultural sites in a tweet on Saturday where he said the US had 52 targets in its sights.

Speaking to reporters as he returned to Washington from a holiday in Florida, he repeated the threat.

“They’re allowed to kill our people,” Trump said. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”

Trump threatens Iraq sanctions after lawmakers call on US troops to leave

Trump threatened sanctions against Baghdad on Sunday after Iraq’s parliament called on US troops to leave the country.

Speaking on Air Force One, Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to leave and it was not done on a friendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

He also said Iraq would have to pay for the cost of the airbase.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” he said. “It cost billions of dollars to build, long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.” 

Nader Hashemi, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver told Al Jazeera Trump’s comments were cause for concern.

“This is someone who is completely surrounded by war hawks, is driven by his ego and is in a re-election campaign,” Hashemi said. “I think he’s calculating that this type of tough rhetoric plays well with his domestic base.” 

France, Britain, Germany: Iran must refrain from violence and respect nuclear deal

France, Britain and Germany called on Iran to refrain from any violent action and respect arrangements laid out in the JCPOA 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The three countries also highlighted the importance of de-escalating tensions in Iraq and Iran, and reaffirmed their determination to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).

“We reaffirm our commitment to continuing the fight against Islamic State, which remains a priority. It is essential that we keep the coalition, in this regard. We call on the Iraqi authorities to continue to supply the necessary support to the coalition,” the three said in a statement.

“We are ready to continue talks with all parties in order to contribute to de-escalating tensions and re-establishing stability in the region.”

The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said he was expected to hold talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the coming days.

Three rockets fall inside Baghdad’s Green Zone: Police sources

Three Katyusha rockets fell inside the Iraqicapital Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign missions, police sources told Reuters news agency.

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Sirens were sounded and there were no immediate reports of casualties, the sources said.

Iranians and Iranian-Americans detained, questioned, refused entry to US

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans were “detained at length and questioned at the Peace Arch Border Crossing” in Blaine, Washington.

Many more were reportedly refused entry to the US due to a lack of capacity for Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to detain them, CAIR said in a post on its website.

Those detained said their passports were confiscated and they were questioned about their political views and allegiances. Many were returning from an Iranian pop concert in Vancouver, Canada

A US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson dismissed as “false” social media posts that Iranian Americans had been detained and refused entry because of their ethnic origins.

Read more here.

Iran steps further back from nuclear deal, says no limits on enrichment: State TV

Iran said it would further roll back its commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers but continue to cooperate with the United Nations nuclear watchdog, according to state television.

The station cited a government spokesman as saying Iran would not respect any limits set down in the pact on the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges it could use, which meant there would be no limits on its enrichment capacity, the level to which uranium could be enriched, or Iran’s nuclear research and development.

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These would from now on be based on Iran’s technical needs.

The spokesman said Iran’s steps could be reversed if Washington lifted its sanctions on Tehran. 

Read the full story here.

Iran summons German diplomat over ‘destructive’ Soleimani comments: State TV

Iran summoned Germany‘s charge d’affaires in Tehran to protest against “destructive” comments made by some German officials supporting Soleimani’s killing.

“Iran strongly criticised inappropriate, insubstantial and destructive remarks of some German officials,” Iranian state TV reported.

A German government spokeswoman said on Friday that the US air strike was a response to Iranian military provocations.

US army to ‘pay price’ for killing Soleimani: Hezbollah chief

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the US army will “pay the price” for killing Soleimani and al-Muhandis. 

“The American army killed them and it will pay the price,” he said in a televised speech. 

“The only just punishment is [to target] American military presence in the region: US military bases, US warships, each and every officer and soldier in the region,” Nasrallah said.

Read the full story here

Pompeo: Trump did not threaten Iranian cultural sites

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied that Trump said he would target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliated against Soleimani’s killing.

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“President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site – read what he said,” Pompeo told Fox News. 

Trump had warned on Saturday that the US would target 52 Iranian sites, including some that were important to Iranian culture, in the event Tehran retaliates. 

Iraq’s al-Sadr calls for ‘humiliating’ US troop exit

Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr said a parliamentary resolution urging on the Iraqi government to end foreign troop presence did not go far enough and called on local and foreign militia groups to unite.

Al-Sadr said the Iraqi parliament resolution did not go for enough [File: Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

“I consider this a weak response insufficient against American violation of Iraqi sovereignty and regional escalation,” al-Sadr, who leads the largest bloc in parliament, said in a letter. 

“I call specifically on the Iraqi resistance groups and the groups outside Iraq more generally to meet immediately and announce the formation of the International Resistance Legions,” he said.

UK’s Johnson faces heat for holiday silence on Iran

The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to return to the UK, where he faces criticism for not cutting short his holiday to deal with soaring tensions in the Middle East.

Johnson, who celebrated the New Year on the Caribbean private island of Mustique, has been silent over the killing of Soleimani. 

Iraqi parliament passes resolution asking gov’t to cancel request for US help

Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution asking the government to cancel a request for assistance from the US.

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The resolution tells the Iraqi government to ensure state monopoly on weapons and to work on ending the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq.

Read the full story here.

Iran cancels Soleimani ceremony in Tehran after huge turnout in second city

Iran has cancelled a ceremony to honour Soleimani in Tehran due to an overwhelming turnout by mourners in the second city Mashhad, the Revolutionary Guards said in a statement.

“Considering the glorious, intense and million-man presence of the revolutionary people of Mashhad in the ceremony to bid farewell to Islam and Iran’s great general Qasem Soleimani and since the program is still continuing … it is not possible to hold the event in Tehran,” the statement said.

The statement called on people to attend a ceremony scheduled to take place at Tehran University on Monday.

Ending foreign troop presence best for Iraq: PM

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi urged Parliament to take urgent measures and end the foreign troop presence as soon as possible.

“Despite the internal and external difficulties that we might face, it remains best for Iraq on principle and practicality,” Abdul Mahdi told Parliament in a speech.

Iraq says it complained to UNSC over US attack

Iraq said it submitted complaints to the United Nations Security Council over the attacks on Iraq.

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The foreign ministry said it had submitted two letters to the UN and asked the Security Council to condemn Soleimani’s “assassination“.

Pompeo: US intelligence assessment was clear on Soleimani

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the intelligence assessment that led to the air raid against Soleimani, saying the attacks were lawful and any future strikes would also be lawful.

“The intelligence assessment made clear that no action – allowing Soleimani to continue his plotting and his planning, his terror campaign – created more risk than taking the action that we took last week,” Pompeo said in an interview with ABC.

Pompeo would not say whether he had been in contact with Iranian officials [File: Erin Scott/Reuters]

Pompeo would not say whether he had been in contact with Iranian officials but said there was no doubt in his mind that Iran “gets clearly the message from the American leadership”.

“We’ve told the Iranian regime: enough. You can’t get away with using proxy forces and think your homeland will be safe and secure. We’re going to respond against the actual decision-makers – the people who are causing this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said.

US-led coalition pauses training and support for Iraqi security forces

The US-led international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) said it had paused its training and support of Iraqi security forces due to repeated rocket attacks on bases housing its troops.

“Our first priority is protecting all Coalition personnel committed to the defeat of Daesh. Repeated rocket attacks over the last two months by elements of Kata’ib Hezbollah have caused the death of Iraqi Security Forces personnel and a US civilian,” it said in a statement.

“As a result, we are now fully committed to protecting the Iraqi bases that host Coalition troops. This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review.”

Iraq summons US envoy over ‘violation of sovereignty’: Ministry

Iraq’s foreign ministry said it summoned the US ambassador following repeated US air raids on Iraqi soil that killed Soleimani and al-Muahndis.

The foreign ministry said the act was “a flagrant breach of Iraq’s sovereignty and of all international laws and norms that regulate relations between countries and prohibit the use of their lands to carry out attacks on neighbouring countries.” 

Hezbollah leader says Soleimani killing marks new phase for region

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Soleimani’s killing marked a new phase in the history of the Middle East. 

Referring to the date of Soleimani’s killing, Nasrallah said it was a “date separating two phases in the region … it is the start of a new phase and a new history not just for Iran or Iraq but the whole region”.

Nasrallah spoke at length about the killing [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

He was speaking at the start of a rally in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon to commemorate Soleimani.

Protests in Istanbul over Soleimani’s killing.

Protesters gathered outside the US Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to demonstrate against Soleimani’s killing.

The protesters, some carrying “Down with America” signs and portraits of Soleimani were watched by police during the rally. 

Protesters gathered outside the US Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey [Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo]

Pope calls for dialogue amid ‘air of tension’

Pope Francis called for dialogue and restraint while speaking at the Sunday Angelus prayer at the Vatican.

The pope did not mention Iran by name but spoke of a terrible air of tension that could now be felt in many parts of the world.

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“I call on all sides to keep the flame of dialogue and self-restraint alight and ward off the shadow of hostility,” he said.

War only brings death and destruction.”

Crowds gather ahead of Nasrallah speech

Supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon have gathered south of the capital ahead of an expected speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, said a ceremony is expected to start “soon” to commemorate Soleimani – a man people in Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut suburbs describe as a “hero”.

“Images of the architect behind Iran’s influence across the region, Qassem Soleimani, are everywhere in the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs,” Khodr said.

Mousavi: Iran will respond to any further threats

Iran will respond to any further threats, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in televised remarks, hours after Trump said Washington would target Iranian sites if Tehran attacks “Americans” or US assets in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.

“We will not remain silent against any threat,” Mousavi said, adding that Iran is not pursuing war, but is “prepared”.

“These actions were against all international laws … the international community should come together against this heinous act.”

Mousavi also said that officials in Iran planned to meet on Sunday night to discuss the next steps in exiting the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and that it would be even bigger than initially planned.

In 2018, the US unilaterally withdrew from the accord and reimposed sanctions.

EU invites Iran’s Zarif to Brussels 

Iran’s foreign minister has been invited to Brussels, with the European Union urging a “de-escalation of tensions” in the Gulf.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made the offer to Mohammad Javad Zarif during a telephone call this weekend, a press release said.

“Borrell invited the Iranian Foreign Minister to Brussels to continue their engagement on these matters,” it said.

Iran summons Swiss envoy over Trump remarks

Iran summoned the Swiss envoy representing US interests in Tehran to protest against Trump saying Washington would target Iranian sites if Tehran attacks Americans or US assets in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.

Israeli PM says Trump ‘worthy of all appreciation’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Trump was “worthy of all appreciation” for ordering the killing of Soleimani.

In an address to his cabinet, Netanyahu said Soleimani “initiated, planned and carried out many terror attacks” in the Middle East and beyond.

Netanyahu said Israel stood alongside the US in its current campaign against Iran.

Iraq parliament to meet in emergency session

Iraq’s parliament was set to convene an extraordinary session during which legislators would reportedly push for a vote on a resolution requiring the government to request the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

“There is no need for the presence of American forces after defeating Daesh (ISIL),” said Ammar al-Shibli, a Shia lawmaker and member of the parliamentary legal committee, according to Reuters news agency.

“We have our own armed forces which are capable of protecting the country,” he said.

Around 5,000 US troops remain in Iraq, most of them in an advisory capacity.

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the US, Iran-backed militia and US troops fought side by side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against ISIL.

Remains of Soleimani, al-Muhandis sent to Iran for DNA tests 

Iraq’s Iran-backed PMF said that some remains of Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader al-Muhandis were sent to Iran for DNA tests to identify their corpses. 

In a statement, the PMF said the bodies were torn to pieces and mangled by the explosion following the US strike near Baghdad’s international airport on Friday.

It said the test would take a few days, after which the remains of al-Muhandis will be brought back to Iraq for burial in the holy Shia city of Najaf.

Iranians attend the funeral ceremony of Soleimani in the Iranian city of Ahvaz [Hossein Mersadi/EPA]

Iran’s Minister Jahromi says Trump ‘a terrorist in a suit’

Trump is “a terrorist in a suit”, Iranian Information and Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi said in a Twitter post.

“Like ISIS, Like Hitler, Like Genghis! They all hate cultures. Trump is a terrorist in a suit. He will learn history very soon that NOBODY can defeat ‘the Great Iranian Nation & Culture’,” Jahromi said.

UK foreign secretary speaks to Iraqi leaders, urges de-escalation

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he had spoken to Iraq’s prime minister and president to urge a de-escalation of tensions in the region.

Raab, who described Soleimani as a “regional menace”, and said he was sympathetic to the situation the US found itself in, said he also planned to speak to Iran’s foreign minister.

“There is a route through, which allows Iran to come in from out of the international cold,” he told Sky News.

“We need to contain the nefarious actions of Iran but we also need to de-escalate and stabilise the situation.”

Tens of thousands mourn as Soleimani’s funeral commences

Tens of thousands of black-clad mourners have filled the streets of the Iranian city of Ahvaz to pay their respects to Soleimani.

Authorities plan to take Soleimani’s body to the holy city of Mashhad later on Sunday, as well as Tehran and the holy city of Qom on Monday for public mourning processions, then to his hometown of Kerman for burial on Tuesday.

Read more here

Iranian mourners react upon the arrival of bodies of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, at Ahvaz international airport [Hossein Mersadi/Fars news agency/Reuters]

Iran’s Zarif says targeting cultural sites a ‘war crime’

Iran’s Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said any decision to target the country’s cultural sites would be a “war crime”, hours after US President Donald Trump threatened such action.

“Targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME,” Zarif said in a Twitter post.

“Whether kicking or screaming, end of US malign presence in West Asia has begun,” Zarif said.

Iran army says US lacks ‘courage’ for conflict 

Iran’s army chief said Washington lacked the “courage” to initiate a conflict, after Trump threatened to hit dozens of targets inside the Islamic republic. 

“I doubt they have the courage to initiate” a conflict, Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Saudi ‘not consulted’ over Soleimani killing: source

Saudi Arabia was not consulted over the US air raid that killed Soleimani, as the kingdom sought to defuse soaring regional tensions, a Saudi official told AFP news agency, requesting anonymity.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was not consulted regarding the US strike,” the official said.

“In light of the rapid developments, the kingdom stresses the importance of exercising restraint to guard against all acts that may lead to escalation, with severe consequences,” the official added.

Oman urges dialogue 

Oman has urged the US and Iran to utilise diplomatic channels to resolve issues and called on the international community to increase their efforts to achieve security and stability in the region, according to a statement carried by state media.

“Oman is following the unfortunate developments and the state of tension and escalation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and calls on both sides to turn to dialogue and diplomatic channels to resolve issues,” Oman news agency said. 

Iranian mourners carry the coffin of Soleimani at Ahvaz international airport [Hossein Mersadi/Fars news agency/Reuters]

Iraqi security forces on ‘high alert’

Iraqi security forces have been on high alert as they brace themselves for a potential reaction, Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Baghdad, said. 

“We’ve also heard from one leader of the militia Kataib Hezbollah, which has been deemed as a terrorist organisation by the US, that all Iraqi forces should distance themselves from US bases from Sunday onwards,” Bin Javaid said.

US troops are invariably based in Iraqi military posts alongside local forces.

Bin Javaid said there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity to try to de-escalate the situation in the region, spearheaded by Qatar’s foreign minister. 

Soleimani’s body to arrive in Mashhad 

Soleimani’s body is due to arrive in the Iranian city of Mashhad in the next few hours, Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari said, where a ceremony will be held for him at the Imam Reza shrine – believed to be the holiest place in Iran.

“The whole country is in mourning … there is a lot of anger and frustration,” Jabbari said from Mashhad.

“Iranians want their government and their military to respond. They want revenge.”

Iranian mourners react over the coffin of the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Ahvaz international airport [Hossein Mersadi/Fars news agency/Reuters]

Trump warns harsher response if Tehran retaliates 

President Donald Trump warned that the US would hit Iran harder than ever before if Tehran retaliates for the assassination of Soleimani.

Trump wrote on Twitter: “If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before!”

He followed up with another tweet, saying the US would use its “brand new beautiful” military equipment “without hesitation” if the Iranians retaliate.

Ceremonies to honour Soleimani begin in Ahvaz

Thousands of mourners gathered in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz, where funeral processions to honour Soleimani began on Sunday morning. 

Footage on state television showed people dressed in black in Mollavi Square, holding flags in green, white and red – depicting the blood of “martyrs”, while others held portraits of the slain general. 

Soleimani’s body arrives in Iran 

Soleimani’s remains returned to Iran on Sunday and were flown to the city of Ahvaz in the country’s southwest, the official IRIB news agency reported.

Read earlier updates here.

Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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