Iran: Mourners Pack Tehran to Grieve Killing of Iranian Military Commander Qasem Soleimani
Protesters hold pictures of Iranian commander Qasem Soleiman. (Photo Credits: AFP)

Tehran, January 6: Mourners packed the streets of Tehran on Monday for ceremonies to pay homage to top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, after he was killed in a US strike in Baghdad. Clutching portraits of their hero, the crowd gathered at Tehran University before supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei presided over prayers for the slain general, AFP correspondents reported. Soleimani, who spearheaded Iran's Middle East operations as commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, was killed in a US drone strike Friday near Baghdad airport.

His assassination ratcheted up tensions between arch-enemies Tehran and Washington. Iran said late Sunday it was further rolling back its commitments to a nuclear deal already in tatters since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it in May 2018. In freezing early morning temperatures, women in black walked alongside men holding up flags bearing the names of Shiite imams as they walked down Tehran's Enghelab (Revolution) Street towards the university. Iran Man Announces $80 Million Bounty For Donald Trump's Head After US Forces kill Iranian Major General Qaseem Soleimani.

"Down with USA," said a placard held up by a young woman wearing a black chadour. The procession was broadcast live on state television, with screens bearing a black ribbon across the top left hand corner in a rare tribute. Khamenei appeared to cry as he prayed over the flag-draped coffins containing the remains of Soleimani and five other "martyrs" killed in the strike.

The supreme leader was flanked by Soleimani's son, the slain general's replacement as Quds commander Esmail Qaani, President Hassan Rouhani, parliament speaker Ali Larijani and the Guards' top commander Major General Hossein Salami.

'Crushing Response'

People prayed together with Khamenei whose voice cracked as he spoke. "We must give a crushing response," one of the mourners told AFP. "We must target whatever military base they have in the region. We must attack all that are in the range of our missiles," said the 61-year-old businessman who gave his name as Afkhami.

The US drone attack that killed Soleimani was ordered by Trump, who said the Quds commander had been planning an "imminent" attack on American diplomats and forces in Iraq. Mourners in Tehran formed a sea of black along Enghelab Street dotted with red Shiite flags and white signs.

One of the placards held aloft by a man read "#hard_revenge". As they marched towards the university, a main artery of the Iranian capital, the mourners chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" and waved flags of Iraq and Lebanon among others.

The procession comes after Soleimani's remains were returned to Iran on Sunday. They were paraded through the streets of the southwestern city of Ahvaz before being taken to second city Mashhad, in the country's far northeast. The Revolutionary Guards said the overwhelming number of mourners in Mashhad forced the cancellation of a ceremony that had been planned in Tehran on Sunday night.

Tributes Pour in

Tributes have poured in from across the Middle East and beyond for Soleimani, who was seen as the Islamic republic's second most powerful person after the supreme leader. Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani on Sunday offered his condolences to Khamenei, according to the supreme leader's official website. "Soleimani's martyrdom caused great sorrow," said the statement.

"His unique role over the years in fighting with Daesh elements in Iraq, and the great pains he endured in this path is unforgettable," it said, referring to the Islamic State group. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan also paid his respects in a telephone call to Rouhani.

A statement from the Afghan presidential palace said Ghani assured Rouhani that "Afghan soil will never be used against any other country". The assassination of Soleimani has raised fears of a new conflict in the Middle East. On Friday, Khamenei vowed "severe revenge" as he declared three days of mourning.

Trump responded on Saturday by warning that the US was targeting 52 sites in Iran and would hit them "very fast and very hard" if the Islamic republic attacks American personnel or assets. On Sunday, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany appealed for a de-escalation. "We call on all the players involved to show utmost restraint and responsibility," they said in a joint statement.