Thousands of members of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shabi paramilitary alliance gathered in Baghdad on Tuesday to mourn comrades killed in American air attacks along the Syrian border.
The US raids early on Monday sparked an exchange of fire between pro-Iranian militias and the United States-led coalition in eastern Syria, as well as fears of a new US-Iran escalation amid faltering efforts to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
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With chants of “Death to America” and “Vengeance for the martyrs”, they massed in Freedom Square near the capital’s high-security Green Zone – the site of the US embassy.
Security forces were deployed in large numbers, sealing the Green Zone after a string of recent incursions by armed groups backed by Washington’s archenemy Tehran.
Ahmad al-Maqsusi – a commander with the Sayid al-Shuhada militia, which has vowed “open war” with US troops – said it was time for the Americans to leave.
“Since the parliament passed a resolution the presence of foreign troops in the country is unlawful,” said al-Maqsusi. “They are here since 2014 and they did nothing to the Iraqis but destruction.”
Several high-ranking Hashd commanders took part in the symbolic funeral, including its top commander Faleh al-Fayyadh and Hadi al-Ameri, head of one of its main factions, the Badr Organisation.
The mourners, accompanied by vehicles full of gunmen, wore black and held up signs reading: “Attacks on the Hashd must speed up the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.”
Others carried pictures of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Hashd second-in-command Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who were killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport last year.
“The rifles and drones of the resistance will move now. The time has come to avenge the death of our heroes including Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis,” said one fighter Haydar Karrar.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said seven fighters had been killed and at least six more wounded in the raids on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The Hashd, most of whose commanders are backed by Tehran and which has become the main powerbroker in Baghdad, said four of its fighters were killed in the Qaim region near the border.
The militiamen were stationed there to prevent armed groups infiltrating Iraq, the group said, denying they had taken part in any attacks against US interests or personnel. They warned they had “the legal right to respond … and hold the perpetrators accountable on Iraqi soil”.
‘Attacked by multiple rockets’
The Pentagon said the raids hit operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq, all near the common border, used by militias engaged in drone attacks against US interests in Iraq.
US forces were subsequently “attacked by multiple rockets” in eastern Syria, but there were no casualties and personnel “conducted counter-battery artillery fire at rocket launching positions”, coalition spokesman Wayne Marotto said on Twitter.
American forces in Iraq, where 2,500 American soldiers are deployed as part of an international coalition to fight the armed group ISIL (ISIS), have been targeted in more than 40 attacks this year.
Monday’s attacks were the second such deadly raids on pro-Iran targets since US President Joe Biden took office.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared the US air raids on pro-Iran fighters in Iraq and Syria sent a “strong message” not to keep attacking American forces in Iraq.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi condemned the raids as an “unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security” and warned against any escalation.
Iraq’s National Security Adviser Qassem al-Araji said al-Kadhimi will discuss the presence of American forces with US President Joe Biden.
“Iraq’s government stance is clear and the prime minister condemned the attack, it is a violation of the state’s sovereignty. The prime minister is planning a visit to Washington to set a timetable for US troop withdrawal,” he said.