Ayatollah leads vast crowds at Iranian general’s funeral
Khamenei weeps as Qassem Suleimani’s successor vows to expel US forces from region
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 Suleimani, killed by a US drone on the orders of US president Donald Trump.
As the coffins of General Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also died in Friday’s attack in Baghdad, were passed over the heads of mourners, Suleimani’s successor vowed to expel US forces from the region in revenge.
The killing of Suleimani, the architect of Iran’s drive to extend its influence across the Middle East, has stoked concern around the globe that a broader regional conflict could erupt.
Mr Trump has listed 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, that could be hit if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or US assets, although U.S. officials sought to play down the president’s reference to cultural targets.
General Esmail Ghaani, the new commander of the Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charged with overseas operations, promised to “continue martyr Suleimani’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 Suleimani’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.
‘Death to America!’
Aerial footage showed people 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 that US forces quit the region gained traction on Sunday when Iraq’s parliament backed the prime minister’s recommendation for foreign troops to be ordered out.
Iraq’s rival Shia leaders, including ones opposed to Iranian influence, have united since Friday’s attack to call for the expulsion of US troops, who number about 5,000.
Suleimani, widely seen as Iran’s second most powerful figure behind Khamenei, built a network of proxy forces 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 mobilised Shia 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 2013-14.
Washington, however, blames Suleimani for attacks on US forces and their allies.
Prayers at Suleimani’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.
His daughter Zeinab Suleimani told mourners the United States would face a “dark day” for her father’s death.
Iran adding to tensions on Sunday by dropping all limitations on its uranium enrichment – another step back from commitments under a landmark deal with major powers in 2015 to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme that Trump abandoned in 2018.
European Union foreign ministers plan to hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss ways to save the deal, two diplomats said.
After quitting the deal, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to halt Iranian oil exports, the main source of government revenues. Iran’s economy has been in freefall as the currency has plunged.
Mr Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Monday that Mr Trump was still confident he could renegotiate a new nuclear agreement “if Iran wants to start behaving like a normal country”.
Tehran has said Washington must return to the existing nuclear pact and lift sanctions before any talks can take place.
Mr Trump stood by remarks that cultural sites were potential targets, despite criticism from US politicians that this amounted to a threat to commit war crimes.
“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump also threatened sanctions against Iraq and said Baghdad would have to pay Washington for an air base in Iraq if US troops were required to leave. – Reuters