Iranians attend a funeral procession for Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Tehran, Iran January 6, 2020. (Reuters)
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DUBAI/WASHINGTON – Iran’s supreme leader wept in grief with hundreds of thousands of mourners thronging Tehran’s streets on Monday for the funeral of military commander Qassem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone on the orders of U.S. President Donald Trump.
As the coffins of General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also died in Friday’s attack in Baghdad, were passed over the heads of mourners, Soleimani’s successor vowed to expel U.S. forces from the region in revenge.
The killing of the 62-year-old Soleimani, architect of Iran’s drive to extend its influence across the Middle East, has stoked concern around the world that a broader regional conflict could erupt.
Trump has listed 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, that could be hit if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or U.S. assets, although U.S. officials sought to play down the president’s reference to cultural targets.
General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as commander of the Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charged with overseas operations, promised to “continue martyr Soleimani’s cause as firmly as before with the help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to rid the region of America.
“God the Almighty has promised to take martyr Soleimani’s revenge,” he told state television. “Certainly, actions will be taken.”
Other political and military leaders have made similar, unspecific threats. Iran, which lies at the mouth of the key Gulf oil shipping route, has a range of proxy forces in the region through which it could act.
The crowd in Tehran, which state media said numbered in the millions, recalled the masses that gathered in 1989 for the funeral of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Soleimani was a national hero in Iran – even to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Iran’s clerical rulers.
Aerial footage showed people, many clad in black, packing thoroughfares and side streets and chanting “Death to America!” – a welcome show of national unity for Tehran after anti-government protests in November in which many demonstrators were killed.
Iran’s demand for U.S. forces to withdraw from the region gained traction on Sunday when Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.
Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad on Monday that both nations needed implement the resolution, the premier’s office said in a statement. It did not give a timeline.
The United States has about 5 000 troops in Iraq.
Soleimani, widely seen as Iran’s second most powerful figure behind Khamenei, built a network of proxy militia that formed a crescent of influence – and a direct challenge to the United States and its regional allies led by Saudi Arabia – stretching from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. Outside the crescent, Iran nurtured allied Palestinian and Yemeni groups.
He notably mobilized Shi’ite Muslim militia forces in Iraq that helped to crush Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that had seized control of swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Washington, however, blames Soleimani for attacks on U.S. forces and their allies.
Prayers at Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran, which moves to the general’s southern home city of Kerman on Tuesday, were led by Khamenei, who wept as he spoke. (Reuters)