- The Washington Times
Monday, January 6, 2020

The Middle East held its breath Monday as Iran’s three-day mourning period for slain Gen. Qassem Soleimani ended with a mass outpouring of grief and heated vows of revenge against President Trump from top Iranian officials, while U.S. allies pleaded for calm in an attempt to de-escalate the spiraling crisis between Washington and Tehran.

The Trump administration held to its threat to respond with overwhelming force if Iran or its proxies target Americans in the region, although there was confusion at the Pentagon over whether some U.S. troops may withdraw from Iraq as part of the fallout from last week’s drone strike near Baghdad International Airport that killed Soleimani and a top Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad.

Red-faced Pentagon leaders scrambled to disavow an unsigned, leaked letter Monday from the commanding Marine Corps general to Iraqi officials seemingly agreeing to their demands to pull the 5,200 U.S. troops out of Iraq and declaring, “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

SEE ALSO: Red-faced Pentagon says Iraq ‘leaked’ withdrawal letter an ‘honest mistake’

“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters. He said the administration was still weighing a response to the Iraqi parliament’s approval over the weekend of a bill calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops amid heightened tension with Tehran-backed militants in Iraq, which has a long border with Iran.

“Our message to Iran is that the ball is in their court,” Mr. Esper said. “We are open to sitting down with them and discussing issues so we can have a more normal relationship with that country.”

President Trump, who sparked more furor when he suggested that Iran’s cultural sites could be targeted in an outright war with Iran, displayed no second thoughts about authorizing the U.S. strike in a radio interview with talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Soleimani “was their real military leader,” Mr. Trump said. “He’s a terrorist.”

‘Severe revenge’

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has vowed to inflict “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death, and Hassan Nasrallah, head of the most powerful of Tehran’s regional allies, Lebanon-based Hezbollah, suggested that U.S. military personnel and assets across the Middle East are fair targets.

The soaring brinkmanship with Iran, coupled with Mr. Trump’s assertion over the weekend that U.S. officials have already identified a vast slate of targets to hit inside Iran, stirred debate among lawmakers in Washington over the status of American forces in the Middle East.

Trump critics say his order to kill the powerful general risks an all-out war with Iran despite a Tehran-backed attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad last week and a host of other Iranian military and proxy provocations in recent months.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the House will vote this week on a war powers resolution to limit Mr. Trump’s authority to take further military action against Iran.

In a letter to House Democrats, Mrs. Pelosi called the drone strike that killed Soleimani — commander of the Iranian military’s elite Quds Force, which oversees Tehran-backed militant proxy activity in several Middle East nations — “provocative and disproportionate.”

Other Democratic lawmakers argued that Mr. Trump may have exceeded his presidential authority by ordering the strike without first notifying key members of Congress.

Mr. Trump sent a classified official notification to Capitol Hill on Saturday, nearly two days after the strike. The notification providing his justification technically checks a key legal box pertaining to such strikes, but it left Democrats with even more questions about the president’s motives.

Lawmakers are expected to pressure administration officials for answers, including the intelligence justifying the attack, at a classified briefing Wednesday.

Nervous allies

U.S. allies in the Middle East and beyond appealed for calm Monday between Washington and Tehran, and world markets appeared to take the escalating tensions in stride.

The international benchmark Brent crude oil rose above $70 a barrel for part of the day, and the price of gold hit a seven-year high. The Middle East remains a crucial source of oil, and Iran has threatened the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all the world’s oil trade passes.

Trading on Wall Street was restrained. U.S. equity markets managed a slight gain despite the air of crisis.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, chairing emergency talks with the alliance’s ambassadors in Brussels, called for restraint and de-escalation. “A new conflict would be in no one’s interest,” he said.

Many NATO allies serve alongside U.S. forces in the fight against the Islamic State group and other jihadi fighters in the region.

Saudi Arabia, a core Iranian rival where the Trump administration has deployed thousands of U.S. troops and military equipment in recent months, also called for calm amid fears that Riyadh could be a target of retaliation for the Soleimani killing.

Tensions escalated in September when drone strikes blamed on Iran devastated the Saudi oil infrastructure. Despite anger in Riyadh toward such provocations, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told reporters in Riyadh that the region is facing a “very dangerous moment.”

“We hope that all actors take all the steps necessary to prevent any further escalation and provocation,” the prince said.

Massive funeral

The theocratic Shiite Muslim regime in Tehran, as well a massive crowd of ordinary Iranians, mourned the death of perhaps the country’s second most powerful figure after Ayatollah Khamenei.

Iran recently faced nationwide protests over government-set gasoline prices that U.S. officials said resulted in a crackdown by Iranian authorities that killed more than 1,000 demonstrators, but Soleimani’s death brought together people from across the country’s political spectrum and temporarily silenced that anger.

Demonstrators in Tehran on Monday burned Israeli and U.S. flags and displayed mocking effigies of Mr. Trump.

Mohammad Milad Rashidi, a 26-year-old university graduate in the funeral crowd, predicted more tension ahead. “Trump demolished the chance for any sort of possible agreement between Tehran and Washington,” Mr. Rashidi told The Associated Press. “There will be more conflict in the future for sure.”

Ayatollah Khamenei wept openly over Soleimani’s casket in Tehran. His prayers joined the wails of mourners who flooded the streets of the Iranian capital demanding retaliation against America.

The funeral drew a crowd that police said was in the millions, filling thoroughfares and side streets. Although there was no independent estimate, aerial footage and Associated Press journalists suggested a turnout of at least 1 million.

Authorities brought Soleimani’s remains and those of the others killed in Friday’s drone strike to Iran’s holy city of Qom, turning out another massive crowd.

The outpouring of grief was an unprecedented honor for a man viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the military’s special forces and boosting Tehran’s influence throughout the region.

Soleimani led Iranian forces in Syria backing President Bashar Assad in a long civil war. U.S. officials have long blamed him for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in resistance after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the Trump administration accused him of plotting further attacks.

Soleimani’s death has pushed Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge.

Troops in doubt

The fallout has raised questions about the future of some 5,200 U.S. troops positioned in Iraq and a surge in influence of Shiite militias operating there. Analysts fear that could allow the Salafist Sunni Islamic State to mount a comeback.

Mr. Trump said Sunday that the U.S. won’t withdraw troops unless Iraq compensates the U.S. for the possible loss of a major air base there. Mr. Trump threatened to impose “big sanctions” on Iraq if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.

But the U.S.-led military coalition operating in Iraq said Sunday that it is putting its fight against ISIS on hold to focus on protecting its troops and bases against the threat of vengeance from Iran and its regional proxies.

There were also reports Monday of a U.S. military buildup in the wider region. The Washington Post cited an unidentified defense official as saying the Pentagon had ordered an amphibious force of about 4,500 sailors and Marines to prepare for deployment.

Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations signaled his government’s displeasure by calling on the Security Council to condemn the U.S. airstrike and the “assassination” of Soleimani and several Iraqi militia members.

The letter from Ambassador Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom called the strike a “flagrant violation” of the terms of the U.S. forces’ presence in Iraq and “a dangerous escalation that might ignite a devastating war in Iraq.”

The U.S. has a veto in the 15-member panel, meaning there is no realistic chance of its passage.

Iranian officials said a major attack on U.S. military interests in the Middle East looms.

Soleimani’s successor, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, stood prominently at the Tehran funeral, as did Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other leaders of the Islamic republic.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif taunted Mr. Trump with Twitter messages about the size of the funeral crowd.

“Have you EVER seen such a sea of humanity in your life, @realdonaldtrump?” Mr. Zarif tweeted. “Do you still want to listen to the clowns advising you on our region?”

“End of malign US presence in West Asia has begun,” he added.

Gen. Ghaani, the new Iranian special forces commander, separately appeared in an interview shown on Iranian state television Monday, saying “God the Almighty has promised to get his revenge.”

“Certainly,” he said, “actions will be taken.”

• Mike Glenn and Ryan Lovelace contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.