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U.S. to hit 52 Iranian sites if Tehran retaliates on Soleimani, Trump tweets

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites "very hard" if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader.

Mourners denounce U.S. at funeral for Iranian general assassinated in airstrike

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at an event in Miami, Fla., on Friday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites "very hard" if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, while tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn their deaths.

Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at a Baghdad airport, Trump issued a stern threat to Iran on Twitter. The U.S. strike has raised the spectre of wider conflict in the Middle East.

Iran, Trump wrote, "is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets" in response to Soleimani's death. Trump said the U.S. has "targeted 52 Iranian sites" and that some were "at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD."

"The USA wants no more threats!" Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

Trump did not identify the sites. The Pentagon referred questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ryan Goodman, former special counsel for the U.S. Department of Defense, said if Trump follows through on his threats to hit places "important to ... Iranian culture," the president could be contravening the Geneva Convention.

Former Obama administration national security official Colin Kahl also wrote on Twitter that he "found it hard to believe" the Pentagon would provide Trump targeting options that include Iranian cultural sites.

"Trump may not care about the laws of war, but DoD [Department of Defense] planners and lawyers do... and targeting cultural sites is war crime."

Trump's reference of an unusually specific number of potential Iranian targets came after a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander had also mentioned a specific number of American targets — 35 of them — for possible retaliatory attacks in response to Soleimani's killing.

'Death to America'

Among the mourners in Iraq included many militia members in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armoured personnel carriers in the procession. Chants of "Death to America" and "No No Israel" rang out.

On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighbourhood and two more rockets were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, the Iraqi military said in a statement. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Gholamali Abuhamzeh, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said Tehran would punish Americans "wherever they are in reach," and raised the prospect of possible attacks on ships in the Gulf.

Mourners carry the coffins of slain Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian military commander Soleimani and eight others inside the Shrine of Imam Hussein in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala, during a funeral procession on Saturday. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

"The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there. Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago. Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach," Abuhamzeh was quoted as saying.

Iraq's Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq, "by a distance not less than a thousand meters starting Sunday evening," reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Trump said on Friday that Soleimani had been plotting "imminent and sinister" attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. Democratic critics said the Republican president's action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.

With security worries rising after Friday's strike, the NATO alliance and a separate U.S.-led mission suspended their programs to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.

"The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount. We continue to take all precautions necessary," acting NATO spokesperson Dylan White said in a statement.

Soleimani was the commander of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign legions. The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.

France stepped up diplomatic initiatives on Saturday to ease tensions. French President Emmanuel Macron talked with Iraq President Barham Salih, Macron's office said. Macron also spoke with the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

U.K. Defence minister Ben Wallace said that Britain's navy will accompany U.K.-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz to provide protection. HMS Defender, pictured, will prepare to return to escort duties for all ships sailing under a British merchant flag. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)

Close U.S. ally Britain also urged all parties to show restraint, but said America was entitled to defend itself against an imminent threat.

U.K. Defence Minister Ben Wallace said he had spoken to his U.S. counterpart Mark Esper, adding: "We urge all parties to engage to de-escalate the situation."

He added that Britain's navy will accompany U.K.-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz — a major global channel for oil shipments — to provide protection.

Wallace said he had ordered the warships HMS Montrose and HMS Defender to prepare to return to escort duties for all ships sailing under a British merchant flag.

Global Affairs Canada is advising travellers of increased tensions in the Middle East, saying that the threat of attacks has increased. Canadians in the area are told to be extremely cautious.

'Total national sovereignty'

The United States has been an ally of the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but Iraq has become more closely allied with Iran.

The top candidate to succeed Muhandis, Hadi al-Amiri, spoke over the dead militia commander's coffin: "The price for your noble blood is American forces leaving Iraq forever and achieving total national sovereignty."

The Iraqi parliament is convening an extraordinary session during which a vote to expel U.S. troops could be taken as soon as Sunday. Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, have expressed anger at Washington for killing the two men on Iraqi soil and possibly dragging their country into another conflict.

Watch: Who was Qassem Soleimani?

The assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani is being met with fury in Iran — who was he to the country and the Middle East? 2:06

Soleimani, 62, was Iran's pre-eminent military leader - head of the Revolutionary Guards' overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran's spreading influence in the Middle East.

Muhandis was de facto leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.

A PMF-organized procession carried the bodies of Soleimani and Muhandis, and those of others killed in the U.S. strike, through Baghdad's Green Zone.

Iraq Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also attended. Mahdi's office later said he received a phone call from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and they "discussed the difficult conditions facing Iraq and the region."

Bodies taken to holy cities

Mourners brought the bodies of the two slain men by car to the Shia holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, then to Najaf, another sacred Shia city, where they were met by the son of Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.

Soleimani's body will be transferred to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday it will be taken to the Shia holy city of Mashhad in Iran's northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.

Qassem Soleimani's body was to be transferred Saturday to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday, it will be taken to the Shia holy city of Mashhad in Iran's northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said (CBC)

The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on Kataib Hezbollah, founded by Muhandis. Washington accused the group of an attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor.

Abuhamzeh, the Revolutionary Guards commander in Kerman province, mentioned a series of possible targets for reprisals including the Gulf waterway through which about a third of the world's shipborne oil is exported to global markets.

"The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there," Abuhamzeh was quoted as saying on Friday evening by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

With files from CBC News

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