Iran can call on powerful friends if conflict engulfs region

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FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2019, file photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to members of the Revolutionary Guard's all-volunteer Basij force in a meeting in Tehran, Iran. Khamenei on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, reportedly called on judicial officials to treat those detained in recent nationwide protests with "Islamic mercy" after authorities acknowledged security forces shot and killed demonstrators nationwide. A portrait of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini hangs in background. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)

JERUSALEM – If Iran decides to follow through on its vow of harsh retaliation for the killing of its top general, it can call upon heavily armed allies across the Middle East that are within easy striking distance of U.S. forces and American allies.

It's a network that was developed over nearly two decades by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed along with senior Iraqi militants in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad's international airport overnight. He enjoyed the fierce loyalty of tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip who received aid, arms and training from Tehran.

Iran has used such groups in the past to strike its regional foes, including Israel, and could mobilize them if the killing of Soleimani ignited an armed conflict — dramatically expanding the battlefield.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.”

Here's a look at Tehran's allies in the Mideast:

IRAQ MILITIAS

Iran has trained, financed, and equipped Shiite militias in Iraq that battled U.S. forces in the years after the 2003 invasion and remobilized to battle the Islamic State group a decade later.

The groups include Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataeb Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, all three led by men with close ties to Soleimani, the leader of Iran's elite Quds Force.