Baghdad: Even as US President Donald Trump advocated ‘de-escalation’ after ordering the killing of Iran’s top commander on Friday, a fresh air strike hit pro-Iran fighters in Iraq early Saturday, spurring fears of a proxy war erupting between Washington and Tehran.
The strike came hours ahead of a planned mourning march for Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary heavyweight Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, slain in a precision drone strike by the US in Baghdad on Friday.
An Iraqi government official reported a ’deadly’ strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad but had no information on casualties. Another security official who witnessed the aftermath described charred vehicles and said five people were killed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Soleimani’s assassination was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between Iran and the US, which pledged to send more troops to the region, even as US President Donald Trump insisted he did not want war or a regime change in Tehran.
Almost exactly 24 hours later, a new strike targeted a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary network whose Shiite-majority factions have close ties to Iran, the group said in a statement.
It did not say who was responsible but Iraqi state television reported it was a US air strike.
A police source told AFP the bombardment north of Baghdad left "dead and wounded," without providing a specific toll. There was no immediate comment from the US.
The assassination of Soleimani, who had led the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' foreign operations branch and was Iran's pointman on Iraq, rattled the region.
US officials said the 62-year-old, who had been blacklisted by the US, was killed when a drone hit his vehicle near Baghdad's international airport.
A total of five Revolutionary Guards and five Hashed members were killed in the strike.
Their bodies were to be taken through an elaborate mourning procession on Saturday, beginning with a state funeral in Baghdad and ending in the holy shrine city of Najaf.
The bodies of the Guards would then be sent to Iran, which had declared three days of mourning for Soleimani.
Tehran has already named Soleimani's deputy, Esmail Qaani, to succeed him.
Meanwhile, PTI reported from Washington that Trump, while defending the killing of top Iranian commander in a US strike said the "reign of terror is over" and claimed Qasem Soleimani had contributed to "terrorist plots as
Amidst escalation of tension with Iran, Trump claimed Soleimani's killing will not lead to war.
"We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war. I have deep respect for the Iranian people. They are a remarkable people with an incredible heritage and unlimited potential. We do not seek regime change,” Trump told reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
Iran Vows Revenge
In Baghdad, almost 24 hours after the attack on Soleimani, Iraqi officials and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq reported another deadly airstrike.
An Iraqi government official reported a strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad but had no information on casualties. Another security official who witnessed the aftermath described charred vehicles and said five people were killed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Iraqi state television and the media arm of the Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces also reported the strike. The group said its medics were targeted.
An American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity denied the US was behind the reported attack.
The targeted strike against Soleimani and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel's doorstep.
The United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation. The U.S. also urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately following the airstrike at Baghdad's international airport that Iran's state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.
The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.
Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State militants. Defence officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.
A Pentagon official who was not authorised to speak publicly said the U.S. also had placed an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy. U.S. embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.
The announcement about sending more troops came as Trump said Soleimani's killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed “harsh retaliation" after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani's deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime" and said his country would “take revenge.” Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass to Washington.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the U.S. attack a “cowardly terrorist action” and said Iran has the right to respond “in any method and any time.”
Meanwhile, thousands of worshippers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America.” However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and the U.S. was prepared. Oil prices surged on news of the airstrike, and markets were mixed.