Grief, anger and tragedy have engulfed Iran as the body of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general slain in an airstrike ordered by Donald Trump last week, was laid to rest in his hometown of Kerman, where a stampede during the procession killed dozens.
At least 50 people were killed and 213 injured during the funeral march, delaying the ceremony, ISNA news agency said, quoting the province’s chief coroner.
Most of the dead and injured were elderly people who had been walking from the central Azadi Square towards Beheshti Street when they became trapped in the huge crowds, state media reported.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo defended the decision to kill Soleimani on Tuesday, as did Mr Trump, by again insisting the threat the general was plotting was imminent.
But fallout from the assassination continued to rattle the region, with Iran appearing to move towards a war footing. Nato announced it was withdrawing some of its military trainers from Iraq, citing security concerns.
This followed a vote in Iran’s parliament, declaring the entire United States armed forces a terrorist organisation, and any support of it, including military and financial, “cooperation in a terrorist act”.
The bill also called on the cash-strapped government of president Hassan Rouhani to allocate the equivalent of an additional £170m ($223m) for defence, including support for the clandestine Quds Force that Soleimani led.
The allocation, if approved, would mean more resources for the force, which the US and the west accuse of wreaking havoc in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen with its support for proxy groups and clandestine paramilitary operations.
Iranian officials continued a torrent of threats against the US. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, demanded the “expulsion” of all US forces from the Middle East. Speaking to CNN, he said the US attack was an act of state-sponsored terrorism, and vowed that Iran would respond “proportionately”.
The secretary of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said Tehran was quoted in a pro-government newspaper contemplating at least a dozen possible ways of avenging the death of Soleimani and his Iraqi colleague, militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who was killed in the same airstrike on 3 January in Baghdad. The newspaper report was later retracted.
“We say to our enemy: we will take revenge,” General Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, said in a speech during Soleimani’s funeral. “We will burn the places they love if they make another move. They know where those places are.”
Senior Iranian officials frequently use such fiery rhetoric when discussing the US. But the assassination of Soleimani has galvanised anti-American sentiment among both regime supporters and a public driven by an increasingly fervent nationalism.
In Washington DC, Mr Trump defended his decision, but also stepped away from previous threats to attack cultural sites in Iran if the US launches airstrikes.
“Think of it, They kill our people. They blow up our people. And then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions, But I’m OK with it. It’s OK with me,” he said. He added: “If Iran does anything they shouldn’t be doing, they are going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.”
Mr Pompeo also defended his country’s actions.
“It was the right decision,” he told reporters at the state department. “If you’re looking for imminence, you need look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Suleimani.”
Mr Pompeo repeatedly failed to provide further details of the evidence the Trump administration claims it possesses, said to indicate Soleimani was about to attack US interests in the region, though defence secretary Mark Esper said that attack was days away, rather than weeks.
The secretary of state mocked the suggestion that the 62-year-old Iranian military leader was on a diplomatic mission when he arrived in Iraq.
“Is there any history that would indicate that it was remotely possible that this kind gentleman, this diplomat of great order – Qassem Soleimani – had travelled to Baghdad for the idea of conducting a peace mission?” he asked.
The possibility of an expanding war between Iran and the US or an intensification of the already volatile indirect tit-for-tat attacks by the two countries and their partners has dominated the news and public policy agenda across the Middle East.
Iran has yet to identify any targets but experts and regional insiders say that the United Arab Emirates, a pro-American federation of princedoms that hosts US and UK troops, could be a likely location for reprisal.
“If I was in the Emirates, I would leave now,” Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian scholar considered close to the regime, told Al Jazeera International on Sunday. “If I was an American in Iraq, I would leave now. If I was an American in any part of southwest Asia, I would leave immediately.”
Iranian officials and the leader of its Lebanese ally Hezbollah have ruled out attacks on civilians, and a top security official told CNN that any target would be military.
Iran may forego a spectacular kinetic response and instead attempt to leverage widespread anger over the killing among its supporters and sympathisers in the Middle East, to pressure US forces into leaving the Middle East.
“The ultimate expulsion of the US from west Asia is the doomed fate of Washington’s unbridled exploitation of the tools of war, sanctions, and assassination,” Mr Zarif said in a speech at the Tehran Dialogue Forum, a conference in the Iranian capital that began on Tuesday. “The US will receive the definitive resolute response to its brazen, criminal act in a place and at a time it hurts most.”
Additional reporting by Reuters
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