TEHRAN, Iran — The body of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani arrived Sunday in Iran to throngs of mourners after the US drone strike killed the commander, as US President Donald Trump threatened to hit Iran harder than ever before if Tehran retaliates to the assassination.
“Death to America,” they chanted at a mass gathering in the streets of the southwestern city of Ahvaz, where Soleimani’s remains arrived from Iraq before dawn, according to semi-official news agency ISNA.
Soleimani’s death Friday in Iraq has further heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington after months of trading attacks and threats that put the wider Middle East on edge.
The conflict takes root in Trump pulling out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, an accord likely to further unravel as Tehran is expected to announce as early as Sunday it will break another set of limits.
In Ahvaz, an honor guard stood by early Sunday as mourners carried the flag-draped coffins of Soleimani and five other Guard members off the tarmac.
State television showed thousands of mourners dressed in black gathered in the southwestern Iranian 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.
The footage showed crowds gathered in Mollavi Square with flags in green, white and red — depicting the blood of “martyrs.”
Men and women wept as they beat their chests to the sound of Shiite Muslim chants.
Aerial footage showed a tide of mourners crammed into Mollavi Square and the surrounding streets of downtown Ahvaz, a city of 1.3 million people.
Bodies of slain General #Solemani & comrades arrive in #Ahwaz, Iran. A mammoth funeral procession has kicked off. Images of hundreds of thousands mourners packing the streets, bridge & square, is colossal. pic.twitter.com/HEZQhI11Nl
— Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) January 5, 2020
The general’s remains are expected to be flown to the Iranian capital for more tributes on Sunday evening.
On Monday, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is expected to pray over his remains at Tehran University before a procession to Azadi Square.
His body is then due to be taken to the holy city of Qom for a ceremony at Masumeh shrine, ahead of a funeral in his hometown Kerman on Tuesday.
On Saturday, thousands in Baghdad mourned Soleimani and others killed in the strike before the remains were flown to Iran.
Iran has promised “harsh revenge.” 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 “If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before!”
Trump followed up with another tweet, saying the US would use its “brand new beautiful” military equipment “without hesitation” if the Iranians retaliate.
They attacked us, & we hit back. If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before! https://t.co/qI5RfWsSCH
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2020
He earlier tweeted that the US had already “targeted 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.”
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.
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 was rare.
On Saturday, General Gholamali Abuhamzeh, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the southern province of Kerman said “some 35 US targets in the region, as well as Tel Aviv, are within our reach,” according to the Reuters news agency.
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.
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.
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 US 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. 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.
Also Saturday, NATO temporarily suspended all training activities in Iraq due to safety concerns, Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said.
The US has 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.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.