Chanting anti-American slogans, thousands of Iraqis have converged on a landmark square in central Baghdad to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of a powerful Iranian general and a top Iraqi militia leader in a US drone strike.
Roads leading to Tahrir Square were closed off and security was tight as the crowds gathered on Sunday in response to a call by powerful Iran-backed militias for a rally marking the occasion and demanding the removal of US troops from Iraq.
“No, no to America!” shouted some in the largely mask-less crowd.
“You killed our guest. There is no place here for your embassy,” read some of the banners.
Protesters at one point set fire to a large US flag, drawing cheers from the crowd.
The killing of General Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad’s airport pushed Tehran and Washington perilously close to all-out conflict and sparked outrage in Iraq.
It led parliament to pass a non-binding resolution days later calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraq.
Sunday’s rally was being held amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Already, America has conducted B-52 bomber flyovers and sent a nuclear submarine into the Persian Gulf over what Trump officials describe as the possibility of an Iranian attack on the anniversary of the strike that killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis.
Sunday’s event was organised by mostly Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Abbas Ali, a 27-year-old protester carrying a poster of Soleimani, said he was there because it was a day “to remember those who sacrificed their souls for Iraq.”
Soleimani headed the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s foreign operations, and he frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Al-Muhandis was Iraq’s most powerful militia leader and was deputy commander of the PMF.
Their killing dramatically ratcheted up tensions in the region and brought the US and Iran to the brink of war. Iran hit back by firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing US troops, some of whom suffered concussions. Iranian officials have suggested that more retaliation is coming.
In Lebanon, the Shiite militant Hezbollah grouped marked the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing with a symbolic event on a hill in the country’s south overlooking the border area with Israel.
A group of Hezbollah fighters dressed in military uniforms swore the oath of Hezbollah while officials raised the group’s yellow flag with posters of Soleimani and al-Muhandis on it.