Tehran – Mourners flooded the Iranian cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad Sunday, weeping and beating their chests in homage to top general Qasem Soleimani who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad.
“Death to America,” they chanted as they packed Ahvaz’s streets and a long bridge spanning a river in the southwestern city to receive the casket containing Soleimani’s remains.
As Shiite chants resonated in the air, people held portraits of the man seen as a hero of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and for spearheading Iran’s Middle East operations as commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
In the northeastern city of Mashhad, scores took to streets around the Imam Reza shrine and, addressing the US, chanted “Be afraid of your own shadow”.
Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike Friday near Baghdad airport, shocking the Islamic republic. He was 62.
The attack was ordered by President Donald Trump, who said the Quds commander had been planning an “imminent” attack on US diplomats and forces in Iraq.
In the face of growing Iraqi anger over the strike, the country’s parliament was expected to vote Sunday on whether to oust the roughly 5,200 American troops in Iraq.
Soleimani’s assassination ratcheted up tensions between arch-enemies Tehran and Washington and sparked fears of a new Middle East war.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” and declared three days of mourning.
But Trump warned late Saturday that America was targeting 52 sites “important to Iran & Iranian culture” and would hit them “very fast and very hard” if the country attacks American personnel or assets.
In a series of sabre-rattling tweets, Trump said the choice of 52 targets represented the number of Americans held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran for more than a year starting in late 1979.
– ‘Terrorist in a suit’ –
Iran’s top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME”.
-Having committed grave breaches of int'l law in Friday's cowardly assassinations, @realdonaldtrump threatens to commit again new breaches of JUS COGENS;
-Targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME;
-Whether kicking or screaming, end of US malign presence in West Asia has begun.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 5, 2020
For Iran’s army chief, Trump’s threat was an attempt to distract the world from Soleimani’s “unjustifiable” assassination.
“I doubt they have the courage to initiate” a conflict, said Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi.
Iran’s communications minister, Mohammad Javad Jahromi, branded Trump a “terrorist in a suit” and said in a tweet that he is “like ISIS, like Hitler, like Genghis (Khan)! They all hate cultures”.
US-Iran tensions escalated in 2018 when Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark accord that gave Tehran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.
A year on, Iran began hitting back by reducing its nuclear commitments with a series of steps every 60 days, the most recent deadline passing on Saturday.
Its foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said Tehran would finalise the fifth step in a meeting on Sunday night, noting the nature of its move was altered by Soleimani’s killing.
On Sunday, thousands of mourners dressed in black gathered in Ahvaz.
Crowds massed in Mollavi Square with flags in green, white and red — depicting the blood of “martyrs”.
“A glorious crowd is at the ceremony,” said state television.
In Tehran, deputies chanted “Death to America” for a few minutes during a regular session of parliament.
“Trump, this is the voice of the Iranian nation, listen,” said speaker Ali Larijani.
Soleimani’s remains and those of five other Iranians — all Guards members — killed in the US drone strike had arrived at Ahvaz airport before dawn, semi-official news agency ISNA said.
With them were the remains of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s powerful Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary umbrella group, who was also killed in the US strike.
Soleimani’s remains arrived in Mashhad in the afternoon and are due to be flown to Tehran for more tributes on Sunday evening.
On Monday, Khamenei is expected to pray over Soleimani’s remains at Tehran University before a procession to Azadi Square.
His remains are then due to be taken to the holy city of Qom for a ceremony at Masumeh shrine, ahead of a funeral Tuesday in his hometown Kerman.
– Cyber attack –
In neighbouring Iraq, pro-Iran factions ramped up pressure on US installations with missiles and warnings to Iraq’s troops late Saturday.
In the first hints of a possible retaliatory response, two mortar rounds struck Saturday near the US embassy in Baghdad, security sources said.
Almost simultaneously, two rockets slammed into the Al-Balad airbase where American troops are deployed.
Iraq said there were no casualties. The US military also said no coalition troops were hurt.
In another possible act of retaliation, hackers claiming to be from Iran breached the website of a little-known US government agency and threatened more cyber attacks.
The website of the Federal Depository Library Program was replaced with a page titled “Iranian Hackers!” that displayed images of Khamenei and the Islamic republic’s flag.