A NOTORIOUS Iraqi cleric has ordered his followers to be ready to defend the country within hours of the drone strike that killed powerful Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Populist Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr said his fighters were ready to defend Iraq but called on all sides to behave with "wisdom and shrewdness".
He said: "As the patron of the patriotic Iraqi resistance I give the order for all mujahideen, especially the Mehdi Army, Promised Day Brigade, and all patriotic and disciplined groups to be ready to protect Iraq."
Sadr, who wants to curb both US and Iranian influence in Iraq, urged all sides to behave wisely.
Sadr's militia fought US troops for years following Washington's invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was blamed for numerous roadside bombings and other attacks.
However in the past five years, Mr Sadr has reinvented himself as a campaigner against sectarianism and corruption.
His 'Forward' party won the most seats in the 2018 election.
Last week he said he was willing to work with Iran-backed militia groups – his political rivals – to end the US military presence in Iraq through political and legal means.
If that failed, he would "take other actions" in cooperation with his rivals to boot out US troops.
His intervention comes after Gen Soleimani was killed in an air strike ordered by US President Donald Trump.
Gen Soleimani spearheaded Iranian military operations in the Middle East as head of the country's elite Quds Force.
Two missiles fired from a MQ9 Reaper drone struck Gen Soleimani on Friday shortly after he disembarked from an aircraft at Baghdad airport.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq's association of militia forces, the Popular Mobilisation Units, was also killed in the attack.
The Pentagon justified the assassination, saying Gen Soleimani was "actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region".
The drone strike came days after protesters attacked the US embassy in Baghdad, clashing with US forces at the scene.
The Pentagon said Gen Soleimani approved the attacks on the embassy.
Minutes before the statement President Donald Trump tweeted a US flag without comment.
BRINK OF WAR
Gen Soleimani's killing marks a major escalation in tensions between the US and Iran.
Amir Hatami, Iran's defence minister, has threatened the US with "crushing revenge" for Gen Soleimani's "unjust assassination".
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said "severe revenge awaits the criminals" behind the attack.
He also announced three days of public mourning.
Gen Soleimani was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran behind the Ayatollah Khamenei.
Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, described the strike as an act of "international terrorism."
Soleimani, 62, was commander of the Quds Force, the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which the Trump administration designated as a terror organisation in April last year.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo posted a video he said showed Iraqis dancing in the street "thankful that General Soleimani is no more".
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the "assassination" of Gen Soleimani and said the air strike was an act of aggression that that would lead to war in Iraq, the region and the world.
He said the men killed were "major symbols in achieving victory against" ISIS terrorists.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long supported by Iran, condemned what it called "criminal" US aggression.
Gen Soleimani's killing follows the New Year's Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The two-day embassy attack, which ended on Wednesday, prompted Mr Trump to order about 750 US troops deployed to the Middle East.
That siege followed US air strikes on the militia in Iraq and Syria.
On Thursday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned the US military would pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were signs the paramilitary groups were planning more attacks against American bases and personnel in the region.
A senior Iraqi politician and high-level security official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Gen Soleimani, whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.
The American drone strike saw multiple missiles hit two cars carrying Gen Soleimani and several officials with Iranian-backed militias as they were leaving the airport.
WHO WAS QASEM SOLEIMANI?
Qasem Soleimani became head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran's ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria's government and Shiite militia groups in Iraq.
He was known as 'The Shadow Commander' by his enemies, spending most of his career as a recluse and a spook.
The Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran's borders, shored up support for Syria's Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped defeat ISIS in Iraq.
Former CIA officer John Maguire said Soleimani was "the single most powerful operative in the Middle East".
Soleimani had survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.
The Trump administration designed Soleimani's Quds Force as a terror organisation in April last year.
He was the second most powerful person in Iran behind the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the time of his assassination.
He was hailed as a national hero by many in Iran and was awarded the Order of Zolfiqar medal, Iran's highest military honour, last year.
Iraqi state television said that five Iraqis and two "guests" had been killed. Pictures showed burning debris on an airport road.
A senior Iraqi politician told AP that Soleimani's body was identified by the ring he wore.
The strike was carried out by the Joint Special Operation Command.
The White House said the attack was carried out "at the direction of the president".
Mr Trump ordered the strike at a time when the US Congress was in recess.
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