Thousands gather in Baghdad to mourn Soleimani

BAGHDAD, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners gathered in Baghdad on Saturday ahead of a funeral procession for Iran's slain military commander Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and others killed in a U.S. air strike in Iraq.

Friday's attack on Baghdad airport, authorized by U.S. President Donald Trump, was a major escalation in a "shadow war" in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and American allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Soleimani was Tehran's most prominent military commander and the architect of its growing influence in the Middle East. Muhandis was the deputy commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.

The PMF are planning an elaborate funeral procession for both men and the others who died, starting in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, moving towards the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala and ending in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.

Mourners started gathering in Baghdad's streets in the morning ahead of the start of the procession, waving Iraqi and militia flags in a somber atmosphere.

Earlier on Saturday, Iraq's PMF had said further air strikes near camp Taji had killed six people and critically wounded three when they hit a convoy of medics.

But both the Iraqi military and the PMF itself later denied any air strikes had taken place in the area.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State also said it did not conduct any recent attacks near the camp north of Baghdad.

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The killing of Qassem Soleimani
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The killing of Qassem Soleimani
This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, early Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. military has killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Donald Trump. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)
This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, early Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. military has killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Donald Trump. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)
This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, early Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. military has killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Donald Trump. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)
IRAQ shaded relief map highlighted with BAGHDAD blast locator, with AIRPORT ATTACK lettering, finished graphic
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani stands at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. Picture taken March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT POLITICS PROFILE HEADSHOT)
Protesters demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2020. Iran has vowed "harsh retaliation" for the U.S. airstrike near Baghdad's airport that killed Tehran's top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Protesters demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2020. Iran has vowed "harsh retaliation" for the U.S. airstrike near Baghdad's airport that killed Tehran's top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
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"FACT: the coalition ... did not conduct airstrikes near Camp Taji (north of Baghdad) in recent days," a coalition spokesman said on Twitter.

U.S.-Iranian hostilities have been playing out in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militia attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad following a deadly U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

Friday's attack divided Iraqi opinion.

Many condemned the strikes, seeing Soleimani as a hero for his role in defeating the Islamic State militant group. Others voiced approval, saying Soleimani and Muhandis had backed the use of force against unarmed anti-government protesters last year and established militias that demonstrators blame for many of Iraq's social and economic woes.

Many Iraqis criticized Washington for killing the men on Iraqi soil and possibly plunging Iraq into another war. (Reporting By Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Nayera Abdallah in Cairo; Writing By Maha El Dahan; Editing by Kim Coghill, Himani Sarkar and Toby Chopra)

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