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Iraq: Thousands rally in Baghdad to mark 2020 killing of Iran general Soleimani

US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran's Middle Eastern military strategy, sparked fears of a direct military confrontation between Washington and Tehran
Protesters in Baghdad take part in a demonstration and a symbolic funeral for slain top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, 1 January 2022 (AFP)

Thousands of supporters of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi alliance of armed groups on Saturday marked the second anniversary of the killing of a revered Iranian commander and his Iraqi lieutenant in a US drone strike.

Chanting "death to America," they filled a Baghdad square to honour General Qassem Soleimani, who headed the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, until his death on 3 January 2020.

"US terrorism has to end" read one sign at the rally by backers of the pro-Iran Hashed, a former paramilitary alliance that has been integrated into Iraq's state security apparatus, AFP reported.

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Former US President Donald Trump ordered the strike that killed Soleimani near Baghdad's airport along with his Iraqi lieutenant, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Hashed's deputy leader.

Trump said at the time that the assassination came in response to a wave of attacks on US interests in Iraq.

The killing of Soleimani, the architect of Iran's Middle Eastern military strategy, sent shock waves across the region and sparked fears of a direct military confrontation between decades-old arch-enemies Washington and Tehran.

The Islamic republic, which wields considerable influence in neighbouring Iraq, warned it would avenge Soleimani's death.

Five days after his killing, Iran fired missiles at an air base in Iraq housing US troops and another near Erbil in the north.

Since then dozens of rockets and roadside bombs have targeted western security, military and diplomatic sites across Iraq.

'Crime against Iraqi sovereignty'

Iraqi and western officials have blamed hardline pro-Iran factions for the attacks, which have never been claimed by any group.

In February last year, the US carried out an air strike against Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary force stationed along the Iraqi-Syrian border, following rocket attacks on its Baghdad embassy and a US military contracting firm north of the capital.

Hashed has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of US troops who are deployed in Iraq as part of a multinational coalition fighting members of the Islamic State (IS) group.

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Senior Hashed official Faleh al-Fayyad reiterated the demand on Saturday, saying that the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis was "a crime against Iraqi sovereignty".

In December, Iraq announced the end of the "combat mission" there of the US-led coalition against IS. But about 2,500 American soldiers and 1,000 coalition troops will remain deployed in Iraq to offer training, advice and assistance to national forces.

The Hashed's political wing, the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance, performed very strongly in the 2018 legislative elections, thanks to the paramilitaries' key role in defeating IS.

While Fatah remains a significant political player, it lost almost two-thirds of its seats in legislative polls in October, driven by concerns even among Shia voters over outsized Iranian influence.

As part of the anniversary commemorations, a candle-lit vigil is set to take place on Sunday evening at Baghdad airport.

In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and senior Guards figures met with Soleimani's family on Saturday, ahead of the main commemorations there on Monday.