Anti-U.S. marches across Middle East mark anniversary of Soleimani killing

Middle East

Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets Saturday night and demanded all U.S. troops exit their country, declaring that “America is the great Satan” and marking the one-year anniversary of an airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The demonstrators in Baghdad were joined by others in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, according to media reports. Iranian leaders tried to tap into that broad anti-American sentiment and pushed for a complete removal of U.S. forces from the Middle East.

“We are prepared to avenge the blood of the martyrs and liberate Muslims forever from the political, economic and cultural hegemony of the U.S.,” Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said over the weekend, as quoted by Iran’s Fars News Agency.

The death of Soleimani, who had been the longtime commander of the elite Quds Force unit of the IRGC, brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of all-out war last year. There were growing fears heading into the weekend that Iran’s military or the militias it supports in Iraq could target U.S. troops in an effort to avenge Soleimani’s death.

However, there have been no major reports of violence or any assaults on U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in the region.

In Iraq, protesters marched to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and raised Iraqi flags and pictures of Soleimani, according to al Jazeera, and crowds descended on Baghdad International Airport, the site of the Soleimani strike. Many also carried banners demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq.

President Trump has ordered that the number of American forces in Iraq be cut to 2,500 by Jan. 15, five days before President-elect Joseph R. Biden takes office.

The country has become the central battleground between Iran and the U.S. After the Soleimani airstrike in January 2020, Iran responded by firing rockets at an American air base in Iraq. No Americans were killed in that assault, but dozens suffered brain injuries.

Last month, Iran-backed militias launched a rocket attack at the U.S. diplomatic complex inside Baghdad’s “green zone,” killing a civilian and damaging property.

The Pentagon responded by dispatching B-52H “Stratofortress” bombers in the region as a clear warning to Tehran. The U.S. also has recently sailed nuclear-powered submarines through the waters off Iran’s coast.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump and top Iranian officials have traded public threats in recent weeks.

“Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets,” Mr. Trump tweeted soon after the rocket attack in Iraq. “Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq. Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fired back.

“One of the effects of this stupid and disgraceful act,” Mr. Rouhani said of the airstrike that killed Soleimani, “was that Trumpism ended.”

“In a few days, the life of this criminal will end and he will go to the dustbin of history,” Mr. Rouhani said.

Top Iranian officials also have claimed that the U.S. and Israel are working to fabricate a justification for war against Iran. Both the U.S. and Israel have denied those claims.

The incoming Biden administration is expected to take a more diplomatic approach to Iran, including an attempt to rejoin a multilateral nuclear agreement with Tehran that Mr. Trump exited in 2018.

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