Iranians protest shot down plane; Iraqi soldiers wounded in rocket attack

(AP) - Iraqi security officials say four members of Iraq’s military have been wounded by a rocket attack targeting an air base just north of Baghdad.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. American trainers and a company that services F-16 aircraft are present at that base.

Sunday’s attack by at least six rockets came just days after Iran fired ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces, causing no casualties.

Last month, an American contractor was killed by a rocket attack on a base in Iraq. His death sparked recent heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The U.S. has blamed that attack and others on Iran-backed militias.

In Tehran, Iranian demonstrators are defying a heavy police presence to protest Sunday night over the Islamic Republic’s days of denials it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane and killed 176 people.

People gather for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash, at the gate of Amri Kabir University that some of the victims of the crash were former students of, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.
People gather for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash, at the gate of Amri Kabir University that some of the victims of the crash were former students of, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (Source: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Videos posted online Sunday night showed protesters shouting anti-government slogans and moving through subway stations and sidewalks.

Many were near Azadi, or Freedom, Square after an earlier call for people to demonstrate there.

Other videos suggested similar protests were taking place in other Iranian cities.

Iran has deployed riot police in the capital expecting more protests after its Revolutionary Guard admitted to accidentally shooting down a passenger plane.

Riot police and plainclothes officers could be seen massing in Vali-e Asr Square and other landmarks in Tehran.

President Donald Trump has addressed the country’s leaders in a tweet, saying “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS.” He also tweeted a message of support Saturday for the Iranian protestors.

After initially blaming the crash on a technical failure, authorities finally admitted to accidentally shooting the plane down in the face of mounting evidence and accusations by Western leaders. A military statement says the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target."

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered condolences and called for an investigation into the incident.

The plane was shot down at a time of soaring tensions with the United States after a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. The leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah says Iran’s response to the killing has only just begun.

He says Iran’s missile attacks on bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces were a “slap” to Washington, one that sent a message. Hezbollah is a key Iranian ally.

The limited Iranian strikes caused no casualties and appeared to be mainly a show of force.

Hezbollah’s leader says the final goal is to remove U.S. troops from the region, and that “The alternative ... to leaving vertically is leaving horizontally.”

His televised speech was delivered Sunday, a week after the Iranian general was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it’s been gut-wrenching to listen to stories from relatives of 57 Canadians who perished in the downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in Iran last week as he attended one of several memorials across the country on Sunday.

Speaking at a memorial in Edmonton, Alberta Trudeau said he has learned many of the victims came to Canada in search of new opportunities for their families, but those families are now consumed by grief.

Esper has seen no hard evidence for embassies’ threat claim

Defense Secretary Mark Esper explicitly says he’s seen no hard evidence that four American embassies had been under possible threat when Trump authorized the targeting of Iran’s top commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Esper’s comments in a “Face the Nation” interview Sunday raises questions about the scale of the threat described by Trump last week.

Trump stated in a Fox News interview that he had to strike quickly because of intelligence that Iran could strike four American embassies.

“There was intelligence that they had - there was an intent to target the embassy in Baghdad,” Esper told CNN in another Sunday interview. “What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well. He said that he believed they probably and could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”

As the administration struggled with its justification for the drone strike that killed Soleimani, Esper and members of Trump’s national security team are trying to refocus attention on voices of dissent inside Iran.

Administration officials on the Sunday TV show circuit suggested the Islamic Republic is under internal threat after Tehran denied, then admitted its role in the shootdown.

Esper says street protests show the Iranian people are hungry for a more accountable government.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien says Iran’s leaders are "reeling from their incompetence in this situation and the people of Iran are just fed up with it.”

Esper says he doesn’t foresee further Iranian military attacks in retaliation for the U.S. strike.

The Pentagon chief says Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force still presents a threat across the Mideast, but the specific attacks he says were being planned by Soleimani had been “disrupted.”

He told “Face the Nation” that the Trump administration’s offer to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran without precondition still stands.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. Gray Media Group, Inc., contributed to this report. All rights reserved.