Iran pushes back after US threatens to target dozens of sites
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Iran pushes back after US threatens to target dozens of sites

Army says US military lacks ‘courage,’ and Tehran’s top diplomat protests that hitting cultural sites is prohibited; Iran MPs chant ‘Death to America’ after Soleimani killing

A large crowd surrounds the coffins of slain top commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as they are transported atop a vehicle after their arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in southwestern Iran on January 5, 2020. (FATEMEH RAHIMAVIAN / fars news / AFP)
A large crowd surrounds the coffins of slain top commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as they are transported atop a vehicle after their arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in southwestern Iran on January 5, 2020. (FATEMEH RAHIMAVIAN / fars news / AFP)

Iran’s army chief said Sunday that Washington lacked the “courage” to initiate a conflict after US President Donald  Trump threatened to hit dozens of targets inside the Islamic Republic, should Iran attack Americans in retaliation for the US strike that killed top general Qassem Soleimani.

“I doubt they have the courage to initiate” a conflict in which the Americans threatened to strike 52 targets, Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi said, quoted by state news agency IRNA.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also pushed back against Trump, saying targeting “cultural sites is a WAR CRIME,” in a Twitter post.

Iran has promised “harsh revenge” for the US drone strike Friday that killed Soleimani in Iraq.  Already, a series of rockets launched in Baghdad late Saturday fell inside or near the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the US Embassy.

Trump wrote on Twitter afterward that the US would target “52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”

Trump did not identify the targets but added that they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

He later threatened to send “brand new beautiful [military] equipment their way…and without hesitation!”

But Iran’s army chief dismissed the threats as an attempt to distract the global opinion “from the heinous and unjustifiable act they have done.”

As Soleimani’s body arrived Sunday in Iran to throngs of mourners, Iranian lawmakers opened a parliamentary session with chants of “Death to America” on Sunday. The chant in Tehran lasted for a few minutes during a regular session, ISNA reported.

“Trump, this is the voice of the Iranian nation, listen,” speaker Ali Larijani was quoted as saying.

Soleimani’s death Friday in Iraq further heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington after months of trading attacks and threats that put the wider Middle East on edge.

After thousands in Baghdad on Saturday mourned Soleimani and others killed in the strike, authorities flew the general’s body to the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. An honor guard stood by early Sunday as mourners carried the flag-draped coffins of Soleimani and other Guard members off the tarmac.

Officials brought Soleimani’s body to Ahvaz, a city that was a focus of fighting during the bloody 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran in which the general slowly grew to prominence. After that war, Soleimani joined the Guard’s newly formed Quds, or Jerusalem, Force, an expeditionary force that works with Iranian proxy forces in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Authorities also plan to take Soleimani’s body to Mashhad later Sunday, as well as Tehran and Qom on Monday for public mourning processions, then onto his hometown of Kerman for burial Tuesday.

Senior Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (not seen) and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2016 photo. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

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 terror group. He was also blamed for attacks on US troops and American allies 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.

Israel has also taken some precautions amid fears of being targeted by Iran, though most analysts believe the Jewish state to be an unlikely target.

After the airstrike early Friday, the US-led coalition has scaled back operations and boosted “security and defensive measures” at bases hosting coalition forces in Iraq, a coalition official said on condition of anonymity according to regulations.

Meanwhile, the US has 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.

In a thinly veiled threat, one of the Iran-backed militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, called on Iraqi security forces to stay at least a kilometer (0.6 miles) away from U.S. bases starting Sunday night. However, US troops are invariably based in Iraqi military posts alongside local forces.

Iraq’s government, which is closely allied with Iran, condemned the airstrike that killed Soleimani, calling it an attack on its national sovereignty. Parliament is meeting for an emergency session Sunday, and the government has come under mounting pressure to expel the 5,200 American troops who are based in the country to help prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

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