Dozens killed in stampede at Kerman funeral
An ocean of mourners thronged the streets in Iran’s southeastern city of Kerman, the hometown of Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani, to bid farewell to the top commander who was assassinated by the US military during a visit to neighboring Iraq.
A stampede broke out just before the burial, leaving 40 people dead and more than 200 others injured.
The injured were immediately transferred to hospital, head of Iran’s emergency services, Pirhossein Kolivand, told state television.
There was no information as to what had set it off. Initial videos posted online showed people lying lifeless on a road and others shouting and trying to help them. His burial was later delayed but no new timing was given.
The remains of General Soleimani and Major General Hossein Pourjafari arrived at Kerman Airport early Tuesday, following massive funeral processions in the cities of Ahvaz, Mashhad, Tehran and Qom, as well as the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf.
In each place, huge numbers of people filled thoroughfares, chanting “Death to America” and weeping with emotion. Leader of Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei shed tears while leading prayers over General Soleimani and his companions’ caskets in Tehran on Monday.
The massive number of mourners in the hometown of the slain commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) appeared to match the huge turnout seen in other Iranian cities.
A hugely popular figure in the Islamic Republic, Soleimani was killed outside of Baghdad International Airport on Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with Iran which has vowed "severe revenge".
The outpouring of grief was an unprecedented honor for a man viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work
Ayatollah Khamenei and military commanders have said Iranian retaliation for the US action would match the scale of Soleimani’s assassination but that it would be at a time and place of Tehran’s choosing.
Speaking in Kerman, IRGC chief Major General Hossein Salami praised Soleimani, describing him as essential to backing Palestinian groups, Yemen’s Houthi fighters and Shia fighters in Iraq and Syria. As a martyr, Soleimani represented an even greater threat to Iran’s enemies, Salami said.
"The martyr Qassem Soleimani is more powerful... now that he is gone," said Salami.
"The enemy killed him unjustly," he told the throngs of black-clad mourners.
“We will take revenge, a hard and definitive revenge,” Salami said.
"Our will is firm. We also tell our enemies that we will take revenge, and that if they (strike again) we will set fire to what they love," he said.
"They themselves know well what places I am talking about."
The assassination of Soleimani set off an escalating war of words between Iran and the United States.
In Tehran on Monday, President Hassan Rouhani warned Trump to "never threaten" Iran, after Trump issued a US strike list of 52 targets in the Islamic Republic including cultural sites.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force launched a drill with 52 fighter jets in Utah, just days after Trump’s threat.
In General Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman, people converged from afar on Azadi Square where two flag-draped coffins were on display.
"We're here today to pay respects to the great commander of the holy defense," said one of the mourners who came from the southern city of Shiraz to attend the funeral in Kerman.
"Haj Qassem was not only loved in Kerman, or Iran, but also the whole world," Hemmat Dehqan said.
"The security of the whole world, Muslims, Shias, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and especially Iran, all owe it to him," said the 56-year-old war veteran.
Another mourner said Soleimani's assassination "boils the blood of the Iranian people".
"He was seen as a great man who was ready to serve his people both then in the war and now. He must certainly be avenged," said Sara Khaksar, an 18-year-old student.
Friday's assassination of the 62-year-old Soleimani heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile Middle East and rattled financial markets.
Iraq's parliament has demanded the government expel the 5,200 American troops stationed in the country in response to the drone attack which also killed top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Baghdad requested in a letter to the UN that the Security Council condemn the US drone strike, so that "the law of the jungle" was not allowed to prevail.
The operation represented "a dangerous escalation that could lead to a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world," wrote Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Mohammed Hussein Bahroluloom.
On Sunday night, the United States notified the Iraqi government of an imminent troop pullout in a letter that sparked confusion in Washington.
"We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure," said the letter, whose authenticity was confirmed by both Iraqi and US defense officials.
In the letter, US Brigadier General William Seely said the US-led coalition would "be repositioning forces".
But Pentagon Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said the letter was a mere "draft" and "should not have been sent."
"It was a mistake, an honest mistake, a draft unsigned letter, because we are moving forces around," Milley told reporters in Washington.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the letter was "inconsistent" with Washington's position and denied there had been a decision to leave Iraq.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that Iran must avoid "further violence and provocations" after the alliance held emergency talks on the crisis.
The European Union said it was in both Iran and Iraq's interests to "take the path of sobriety and not the path of escalation".
Saudi Arabia – an oil-rich US ally – also appealed for calm after a "very dangerous" escalation.
Oman’s Foreign Affairs Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said in Iran on Tuesday the United States wanted to reduce tensions in the region.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry tweeted that Bin Alawi, who was in Tehran for a conference, had offered condolences for the assassination Gen.
AFP, AP, Reuters and Press TV contributed to this story.