In Baghdad on Saturday, tens of thousands marched to mourn Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed this week in a drone strike on the direct orders of Donald Trump.
The funeral procession – organized by the Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group of Shia militias which Muhandis helped lead and which Soleimani ultimately commanded – was attended by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and Hadi al-Amiri, who will likely succeed Muhandis.
In October, when mass protests forced Mahdi to announce his resignation, Soleimani traveled to Baghdad and instructed militia leaders including Amiri to keep supporting Mahdi. Amiri promptly issued a public statement promising to “work together” with Moqtada al-Sadr, who had asked for his assistance in toppling the prime minister. Sadr wasn’t amused, but Soleimani had spoken. Mahdi remains the country’s caretaker. In the hours after the US drone strike that killed Soleimani, he called Trump’s actions “a massive breach of sovereignty”.
Mike Pompeo on Friday posted a video of demonstrators dancing in Tahrir Square, the site of the protest movement, in apparent celebration of Soleimani’s death. One of the 33-year-old men who attended offered a somewhat more nuanced account when interviewed by Al Jazeera.
“We condemn the spilling of Iraqi blood regardless of who is behind this attack, but we equally reject the struggle between Iran and US from taking place on Iraqi soil”, the 33-year-old protester said. “There were small groups that started dancing after the announcement, but the majority of us have called for restraint in the face of these developments”.
Late Friday, a 24-year-old student who attended a gathering in the square told Al Jazeera that he and other university students “reject the idea of making Iraq the scene of a US-Iran war”.
Whatever the case, this was the scene on Saturday:
Suffice to say Pompeo won’t be tweeting out that video.
The stakes are higher now, and it’s likely that many of the protesters who previously called for the throwing off of Iranian hegemony in Iraq are now more cautious in their public condemnation for fear of reprisals. But if that’s true, then it undercuts the State department’s narrative that all it would take to give Iraqis hope was the assassination of one man.
“Although there were some scenes of celebration in Tahrir Square, the majority of protesters are very concerned about the implications of these developments”, Renad Mansour, head of the Iraq Initiative at London’s Chatham House, told Al Jazeera, for the same linked article above.
It is a near certainty that Iraq will formally ask US troops to leave Iraq – for good this time.
On Saturday, scores of mourners carried pictures of Soleimani through the streets of Baghdad, while militiamen in uniform wept.
Portraits of the slain general were affixed to walls and vehicles in the procession. Chants of “No No Israel” and “No No America”, wafted through the city.
In addition to Mahdi, former Premier Nuri al-Maliki attended the funeral, as did Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim.
(Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi attends the funeral of Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Baghdad, January 4. Hashed al-Shaabi Media / AFP)
Soleimani’s body was brought to the Shia holy city of Kerbala south of Baghdad. Reuters describes the next stops on a journey that will ultimately end in Qanat-e Malek:
The procession was to end in Najaf, another sacred Shi’ite city where Muhandis and the other Iraqis will be laid to rest.
Soleimani’s body will be transferred on Saturday to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday it will be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.
Also on Saturday, new information emerged about a strategy session Soleimani convened in October on the banks of the Tigris River, in full view of the US embassy complex.
There, in a villa, the general told Muhandis and other allies to increase attacks on US personnel in a bid to provoke the US, and thereby shift attention from the protests unfolding at the time.
As Reuters dryly notes, “Soleimani’s efforts ended up provoking the US attack on Friday that killed him”.
Sources within Iraq’s security apparatus and from the militias said the general had recently moved “more sophisticated weapons – such as Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired missiles that could bring down helicopters” into the country. The plan, as detailed at the October meeting, was for Kataib Hezbollah to oversee the creation of a new, lower-profile militia unknown to the US.
These plans – previously unreported – were likely what the Trump administration referred to on Friday when justifying the strike on Soleimani and Muhandis. Multiple US officials told Reuters the US intelligence community “had reason to believe that Soleimani was involved in late stage planning to strike Americans in multiple countries, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon” and that the general had “supplied advanced weaponry to Kataib Hezbollah”.
The group – founded by Muhandis and trained in Iran – had the capability to pick US targets using drones.
Meanwhile, details around the hurried planning of the strike on Soleimani paint a picture of a US president confiding in an inner circle of advisors, some of whom lack any claim to expertise.
While Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien were in the loop, so too was the notoriously hapless Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pence.
One cannot help but wonder if things would have transpired differently had John Kelly and Jim Mattis been around to advise the president on the likely consequences of his actions.
“The team used secure communications lines to repeatedly discuss the strike [and] on Thursday, a plane from the White House fleet was sent to California to ferry O’Brien to Palm Beach to be with Trump as the attack unfolded”, Bloomberg reports, adding that “a small number of lawyers on the National Security Council were involved”.
As ever, we would note that no American should mourn the loss of Soleimani. The world is, as Pompeo contends, a safer place without him in many respects.
And yet, from a utilitarian perspective, his assassination will almost surely be remembered as a blunder. More people will die as a result of his demise than will ultimately be saved, and because the former will be quantifiable and the latter forever unknowable, the blunder will be magnified. That is, we will never be able to say how many lives were saved, but we will be able to count the dead, and that will probably make this seem even more misguided than is justified.
When the body of Soleimani reached the crowds, mourners moved alongside the convoy. “You never let us down”, they chanted. “You never let us down”.