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Crowds throng Iran city to mourn Soleimani, vow revenge, as body is flown back

Tens of thousands attend ceremony in Ahvaz; remains to be taken to Tehran, other cities before burial in Kerman on Tuesday; Trump: US will respond to any attack without hesitation

  • Iranians march in the streets of the northwestern city of Ahvaz to pay homage to top general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad, on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)
    Iranians march in the streets of the northwestern city of Ahvaz to pay homage to top general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad, on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)
  • Military personnel carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in Iran on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)
    Military personnel carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in Iran on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)
  • Iranians march on January 5, 2020 in the streets of the northwestern city of Ahvaz to pay homage to top general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News / AFP)
    Iranians march on January 5, 2020 in the streets of the northwestern city of Ahvaz to pay homage to top general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News / AFP)
  • Iranians march on January 5, 2020 in the streets of the northwestern city of Ahvaz to pay homage to top general Qasem Soleimani, who  was killed in a US strike in Baghdad. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars news/AFP)
    Iranians march on January 5, 2020 in the streets of the northwestern city of Ahvaz to pay homage to top general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars news/AFP)
  • Military personnel carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in Iran on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)
    Military personnel carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in Iran on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)
  • Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a US drone strike, held in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran, Jan. 5, 2020. (Morteza Jaberian/Mehr News Agency via AP)
    Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a US drone strike, held in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran, Jan. 5, 2020. (Morteza Jaberian/Mehr News Agency via AP)
  • People carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in Iran on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)
    People carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in Iran on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)

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.

People carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport in Iran on January 5, 2020. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News/AFP)

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.

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike, in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. The body of Soleimani arrived Sunday in Iran to throngs of mourners, as U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to bomb 52 sites in the Islamic Republic if Tehran retaliates by attacking Americans. (Morteza Jaberian/Mehr News Agency via AP)

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.

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.

Iranians march on January 5, 2020 in the streets of the northwestern city of Ahvaz to pay homage to top general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad. (HOSSEIN MERSADI/Fars News / AFP)

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.

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.”

Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani (Screenshot)

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.

Protesters demonstrate over the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, January 4, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

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.

A US. Army soldier checks his rifle before heading out, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as troops from the 82nd Airborne are deployed to the Middle East as reinforcements in the volatile aftermath of the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, January 4, 2020. (Chris Seward/AP)

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.

People hold signs outside the Texas state capitol in Austin, Texas on January 4, 2020 to protest the possibility of a new war in the Middle East. (Ana Ramirez/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

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.

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