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US denies fresh strike on pro-Iran convoy in Iraq ahead of Soleimani funeral

A protester outside the US embassy in Baghdad during a rally to condemn US air strikes on paramilitary bases, Iraq, 1 January 2020.
A protester outside the US embassy in Baghdad during a rally to condemn US air strikes on paramilitary bases, Iraq, 1 January 2020. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
3 min

Iraq and the United States have denied that the US carried out a new air strike on a pro-Iranian convoy after reports of at least six people killed north of Baghdad. It comes hours before the funeral of Iran's Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, who was killed on Friday in a precision US strike.

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The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State armed group in the region said on Saturday it did not conduct air strikes near Camp Taji.

"The coalition @cjtfoir did not conduct airstrikes near Camp Taji (north of Baghdad) in recent days," a spokesman said on Twitter.

Friday's assassination, which also killed Iraqi paramilitary heavyweight Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was the most dramatic escalation yet in spiralling tensions between Washington and Tehran, sparking fears of a proxy war in Iraq.

Iraqis react to killing of Qassem Soleimani

Almost exactly 24 hours later, a new strike targeted a convoy belonging to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary network whose Shia-majority factions have close ties to Iran, the group said in a statement.

A police source told AFP the bombardment north of Baghdad left "dead and wounded," without providing a specific toll. 

The assassination of Soleimani, who had led the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' foreign operations branch and was Iran's pointman on Iraq, rattled the region.

US officials said the 62-year-old, who had been blacklisted by the US, was killed when a drone hit his vehicle near Baghdad's international airport.

A total of five Revolutionary Guards and five Hashed members were killed in the strike.

Mourning march

Their bodies were to be taken through an elaborate mourning procession on Saturday, beginning with a state funeral in Baghdad and ending in the holy shrine city of Najaf.

The bodies of the guards would then be sent to Iran, which had declared three days of mourning for Soleimani.

Tehran has already named Soleimani's deputy, Esmail Qaani, to succeed him.

Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly promised "severe revenge" and tens of thousands of protesters in Tehran torched US flags and chanted "death to America."

US President Donald Trump hailed the operation, saying he decided to "terminate" Soleimani after uncovering he was preparing an "imminent" attack on US diplomats and troops.

He insisted Washington did not seek a wider conflict, saying: "We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war."

US troops deployed

But the Pentagon said hours later that 3,000 to 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division's Global Response Force would be dispatched to Kuwait.

A US official had told AFP that some of the 750 troops already sent from that unit had arrived in Baghdad and would reinforce security at the US embassy there.

Some 14,000 other troops have already been deployed as reinforcements to the Middle East this year, reflecting steadily growing tensions with Iran.

There are approximately 5,200 US troops deployed across Iraq to help local forces ensure a lasting defeat of jihadists.

Pro-Iran factions in Iraq have seized on Soleimani's death to push parliament to revoke the security agreement allowing their deployment on Iraqi soil.

Lawmakers are set to meet on Sunday for an emergency session on the strike and are expected to hold a vote.

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