Huge crowds mourn Soleimani in Iran as Iraqi leader set to ask U.S. troops to leave Iraq

As Qassem Soleimani's mourners pack Iran's streets, Iraq's leader is expected to tell the U.S. ambassador Monday that U.S. troops must leave Iraq.
Image: IRAQ-UNREST-IRAN-US-TROOPS
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, left, attending a parliamentary session regarding the ouster of U.S. troops in Baghdad. - / AFP - Getty Images

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By Ali Arouzi, Yuliya Talmazan, Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube

TEHRAN, Iran — A tide of mourners welcomed the body of Gen. Qassem Soleimani home to Iran on Sunday, ahead of a grand funeral for the man whose death in a U.S. drone strike early Friday stoked shock, anger and fears of escalation in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad the Iraqi parliament voted to ask its government to end the U.S. military presence in the country, and Iraq's prime minister has scheduled a meeting with the U.S. ambassador for Monday to discuss the U.S. role in Iraq, according to two officials familiar with the planning.

The officials say Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi is expected to tell Ambassador Matthew Tueller that U.S. troops will have to leave the country, and is expected to ask for a timeline.

Shortly before Sunday's vote in the Iraqi parliament, the U.S.-led coalition said it had paused training and support of Iraqi security forces because of repeated rocket attacks on U.S. bases.

Iranians march during the procession of Gen. Qassem Soleimani's coffin in Mashhad, Iran, on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.Mohammad Taghi / AFP - Getty Images

The United States has about 5,000 personnel in Iraq to combat ISIS, a fight Soleimani is credited with aiding. A further 3,000 service members were sent to the region Friday in the wake of Soleimani's death and the broader unrest.

As the leaders of Iran and its allies vowed to avenge Soleimani's death, Trump appeared to show no desire to ease the tensions that his strike had sent soaring.

The president issued new threats late Saturday, saying the United States would attack 52 sites important to the country and its culture if Tehran retaliates against Americans or U.S. assets.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Trump of threatening a "war crime," while the country's communications minister called him "a terrorist in a suit."

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, said that U.S. bases, warships and personnel in the Middle East were fair targets and that evicting the U.S. military was now a priority.

A multi-city funeral procession

Soleimani's death has dominated life in Iran since Friday.

Tens of thousands of people packed the streets of Ahvaz and Mashhad Sunday to pay tribute to Soleimani.

They were the first stops on a grand multi-city funeral procession for Soleimani, one of the country's most powerful military and political figures.

Images depicting the general have been plastered across the country, while state TV has been covering his death nonstop, with all channels displaying a black stripe in the corner of the screen as a sign of mourning.

On Sunday, state TV showed his casket, wrapped in an Iranian flag, as it was being unloaded from a plane while a military band played.

The casket then moved slowly through streets choked with mourners wearing black, beating their chests and carrying posters with Soleimani's portrait.

Demonstrators also carried red Shiite flags, which traditionally symbolize the spilled blood of people who were unjustly killed and call for their deaths to avenged.

The main funeral ceremony will be on Monday in Tehran, where Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will lead prayers.

On Tuesday, Soleimani will be buried in his hometown, Kerman, in southeast Iran.

Thousands had gathered in Iraq on Saturday to mourn Soleimani and other militant leaders killed in the airstrike, chanting "death to America, death to Israel" as they marched.

Baghdad has been closely allied with both Tehran and Washington, but its relationship with the United States is now in doubt.

Friday's drone strike near Baghdad International Airport capped weeks of escalation that saw protesters linked to an Iran-backed militia group storm the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.

As a leader of an elite Iranian military and intelligence unit, Soleimani was the architect of Tehran's overseas clandestine and military operations, accused of controlling proxy militias across the region, including some in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

He had been considered the most powerful intelligence operative in the Middle East for more than two decades.

In the weeks before Soleimani was killed, both Iran and Iraq were rocked by anti-government protests that prompted swift and deadly government crackdowns.

Sparked in November by hikes in gasoline prices, the Iranian demonstrations quickly expanded to cover calls for more political freedom and other issues.

Widespread economic discontent has gripped the country since May, when Trump imposed crushing sanctions after having unilaterally withdrawn from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.

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State television said Sunday that Iran was ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium as part of the deal. The country's Foreign Ministry said Iran would take an even bigger step away from the deal than it had initially planned as a result of the U.S. strike.

Ali Arouzi reported from Tehran. Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.

Doha Madani and Associated Press contributed.