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U.S., Iran tensions simmer as thousands protest Soleimani's killing in Iraq

Chanting anti-American slogans, some demanded revenge for the deaths of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
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As tensions with Iran ratchet up during the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, thousands of Iraqis gathered in Baghdad's central square on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general.

Chanting anti-American slogans, some demanded revenge for the deaths of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who were killed by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3, 2020.

Roads leading to Tahrir Square were closed off and security was tight as the crowds gathered in response to a powerful Iraqi militia’s call for a rally to protest the targeted assassination near Baghdad's airport and call for the U.S. troops' withdrawal.

A mock funeral procession attended by thousands of people was also held along the road to the airport on Saturday.

Image: Anniversary of the killing of military commanders Soleimani and al-Muhandis in Baghdad
People gather around candles and pictures of senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on the first anniversary of their killings in a U.S. attack, in Baghdad, Iraq on Saturday.Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters

Posters of the general and al-Muhandis adorned both sides of the road leading to the airport and the scene of the bombing was turned into a shrine-like area sealed off by red ropes. A picture of Soleimani and al-Muhandis was placed in the middle, as mourners lit candles.

Shrapnel marks were still visible on the asphalt and walls in the area.

The protests were held less than 24 hours after Iran said it was planning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent at its underground Fordo nuclear facility "as soon as possible," pushing its program a technical step away from weapons-grade levels.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that Tehran had informed its inspectors of the decision, adding that it "has inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordo."

It added Iran did not say when it planned to boost enrichment.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also took to Twitter on Saturday to suggest that intelligence from Iraq indicated "Israeli agent-provocateurs" were plotting attacks against Americans.

This would put Trump "in a bind with a fake casus belli," he wrote.

“Be careful of a trap, @realDonaldTrump. Any fireworks will backfire badly, particularly against your same BFFs,” Zarif added, in what appeared to be a veiled threat against Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Zarif’s remarks, but on Sunday, the country's energy minister Yuval Steinitz dismissed the claim as “nonsense," Reuters reported.

Instead, Steinitz told Kan public radio that it was Israel that needed to be on alert for possible Iranian strikes.

Zarif's comments came after a U.S. official told NBC News on Friday there have been increasing indications that Iran could be planning an attack against American forces or interests in the Middle East.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that reading Iran’s intentions was “difficult and at times unpredictable,” but the indications were being taken seriously ahead of Soleimani’s death anniversary.

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Last week, the U.S. flew B-52 bombers based to the Middle East in a "deliberate appearance," U.S. Central Command said, in the second such show of force this month.

The aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz was also ordered to return to its U.S homeport after a 10-month deployment to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, the Pentagon said.

The U.S. has recently also accused what it said was an Iranian-backed militia of a Dec. 20 rocket attack on Baghdad's international zone, in which 21 rockets were fired. No one was injured or killed.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.