A spokesman for the Iranian army on Saturday blamed Israel and the US for an attack that has killed at least 29 people and wounded over 60 at a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.
The death toll continued to climb on Saturday and is expected to rise further as some victims, including women and children, were critically injured in the armed assault.
Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi told the state news agency IRNA, that the gunmen who opened fire at the parade, marking the anniversary of the start of its 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, were “not from Daesh [Islamic State] or other groups fighting [Iran’s] Islamic system … but are linked to America and [Israel’s intelligence agency] Mossad.”
Shekarchi also claimed “the terrorists have undergone training in two countries in the Persian Gulf.”
The Islamic State terrorist group had earlier claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. Citing a security source, its propaganda agency Amaq said: “Islamic State fighters attacked a gathering of Iranian forces in the city of Ahvaz in southern Iran.”
In a further claim, Yaghub Hur Totsari told Reuters the Ahvaz National Resistance umbrella organization of Arab anti-government armed movements was behind the attack, but did not specify which particular group carried it out.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, ordered the country’s security forces to identify those behind the attack, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency, and warned of an aggressive response.
“The response of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the smallest threat will be crushing”, Rouhani said on his official website. “Those who give intelligence and propaganda support to these terrorists must answer for it.”
Iran’s foreign minister on Saturday had earlier blamed an unnamed foreign country and its “US masters” for the deadly assault.
Terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz. Children and journos among casualties. Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks. Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives. pic.twitter.com/WG1J1wgVD9
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 22, 2018
Mohammad Javad Zarif said the gunmen were “terrorists recruited, trained, armed and paid by a foreign regime,” further raising regional tensions as Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers is in jeopardy after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord.
“Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives,” Zarif wrote on Twitter after the attack.
The gunmen, said to be dressed as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members, opened fire on the large crowd of spectators watching the parade in Ahvaz and then attempted to attack the viewing stand for official dignitaries before being shot and wounded by security forces, the semi-official Fars news agency said.
Shekarchi said the dead included a young girl and a former serviceman in a wheelchair.
“Of the four terrorists, three were sent to hell at the scene, while the fourth who had been wounded and arrested went to hell moments ago due to his severe wounds,” Shekarchi told state television.
Khuzestan deputy governor Ali-Hossein Hosseinzadeh told the semi-official ISNA news agency that “eight to nine” troops were among those killed, as well as a journalist.
The Revolutionary Guard is a paramilitary force answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guard also has vast holdings in Iran’s economy.
Guard spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif told ISNA that an Arab separatist group funded by Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia carried out the attack, However, those groups in the past previously have only attacked unguarded oil pipelines at night.
“Those who opened fire on civilians and the armed forces have links to the Ahvazi movement,” Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif told ISNA.
“They are funded by Saudi Arabia and attempted to cast a shadow over the Iranian armed forces,” he said.
State television immediately described the assailants as “takfiri gunmen,” a term previously used to describe the Islamic State group. Iran faced a bloody assault last year from the Islamic State group and Arab separatists in the region have attacked oil pipelines there in the past.
The rare attack targeted Khuzestan, a province bordering Iraq that has a large ethnic Arab community, many of them Sunni, and was a major battleground of the devastating 1980-88 conflict between Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Attacks by Kurdish rebels on military patrols along the border in mainly ethnic Kurdish areas further north are relatively common.
Saturday’s rally was one of many in cities across Iran held to mark the anniversary of the launch of the war with massive Iraqi air strikes.
State television showed images of the immediate aftermath. In them, paramedics could be seen helping someone in military fatigues lying on the ground. Other armed security personnel shouted at each other in front of what appeared to be a viewing stand for the parade.
The ISNA news agency also published photographs of the attack’s aftermath, with bloodied troops in dress uniforms helping each other walk away. The attack struck on Ahvaz’s Quds, or Jerusalem, Boulevard.
Saturday’s attack comes after a coordinated June 7, 2017 Islamic State group assault on parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran. That attack had at that point been the only one by the Sunni extremists inside of Shiite Iran, which has been deeply involved in the wars in Iraq and Syria where the militants once held vast territory.
At least 18 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in the 2017 attack that saw gunmen carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and explosives storm the parliament complex where a legislative session had been in progress, starting an hours-long siege. Meanwhile, gunmen and suicide bombers also struck outside Khomeini’s mausoleum on Tehran’s southern outskirts. Khomeini led the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Western-backed shah to become Iran’s first supreme leader until his death in 1989.