Iran on Sunday canceled a Tehran ceremony to honor slain general Qassem Soleimani due to an overwhelming turnout by mourners in the country’s second city, Mashhad, the Revolutionary Guards said.
Soleimani’s body arrived in Iran Sunday morning after his death in a US airstrike on Friday.
“Considering the glorious, intense and million-man presence of the revolutionary people of Mashhad in the ceremony to bid farewell to Islam and Iran’s great general Qassem Soleimani and since the program is still continuing… it is not possible to hold the event in Tehran,” the Guards said.
The statement called on people to attend a ceremony scheduled to take place at Tehran University on Monday.
Mourners flooded the Iranian cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad Sunday, weeping and beating their chests in homage to Soleimani. The country’s semi-official Mehr news agency and Fars news reported millions of mourners in the Mashhad procession.
Marchers took to streets of Mashhad around the Imam Reza shrine and, addressing the US, chanted, “Be afraid of your own shadow.” The city is home to some three million people.
“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.
Soleimani, 62, was killed in a US drone strike Friday near Baghdad airport, shocking the Islamic Republic.
The attack was ordered by US President Donald Trump, who said the Quds commander had been planning an “imminent” attack on US diplomats and forces 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 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.
Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s regional policy of mobilizing militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, including in the war against the Islamic State group. He was also blamed for attacks on US troops and American allies, including Israel, going back decades.
Though it’s unclear how or when Iran may respond, any retaliation was likely to come after three days of mourning declared in both Iran and Iraq. All eyes were on Iraq, where America and Iran have competed for influence since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Iraq’s parliament on Sunday voted to expel the US military from the country. Lawmakers voted in favor of a resolution that called for ending foreign military presence. The resolution’s main aim is to get the US to withdraw some 5,000 US troops present in different parts of Iraq.
The Iraqi resolution specifically calls for ending an agreement in which Washington sent troops to Iraq more than four years ago to help in the fight against the Islamic State group.
The resolution was backed by most Shiite members of parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.
In Israel, some precautions were being taken, including reportedly at foreign missions previously targeted by Iranian proxy groups. However, analysts believed the chances of a large-scale revenge attack against Israel were slim.
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 program.
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 finalize the fifth step in a meeting on Sunday night, noting the nature of its move was altered by Soleimani’s killing.
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 were due to be flown to Tehran 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.
In neighboring 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 cyberattacks.
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.
Meanwhile, the US dispatched another 3,000 troops to neighboring Kuwait, the latest in a series of deployments in recent months as the standoff with Iran has worsened.
Protesters held demonstrations in dozens of US cities Saturday over Trump’s decisions to kill Soleimani and deploy more troops to the Mideast.
The US ordered all citizens to leave Iraq and temporarily closed its embassy in Baghdad, where Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters staged two days of violent protests in which they breached the compound.
Britain and France have warned their citizens to avoid or strictly limit travel in Iraq.
No one was hurt in the embassy protests, which came in response to US airstrikes that killed 25 Iran-backed militiamen in Iraq and Syria. The US blamed the militia for a rocket attack that killed a US contractor in northern Iraq.