By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI, Jan 4 (Reuters) – Iranians young and old have thronged the streets across Iran, waving national flags and breaking into mass chants of “I am Soleimani” as they mourn the country’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani. But while many Iranians rally to show grief over Soleimani, regarded as the country’s second most powerful figure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, others worry his death might push the country to war with a superpower.
Soleimani, the architect of Tehran’s overseas clandestine and military operations as head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was killed on Friday in a U.S. air strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport.
“I don’t feel safe anymore. He was a hero. I am not a religious or pro-regime woman,” said Shahnaz Milaninia, 61, a resident of an affluent Tehran district when contacted by Reuters.
“But I respect Soleimani. He sacrificed his life in order to protect us.”
Soleimani, 62, had dedicated his life to Iran‘s national security, volunteering for the Revolutionary Guards as a young man after war with Iraq broke out in 1980s.
President Donald Trump said Soleimani was killed because he was planning imminent attacks on U.S. personnel across the Middle East.
Khamenei promised harsh revenge and declared three days of mourning on Friday. Flags flew at half-staff in Iran and its embassies across the globe, concerts and sports events were cancelled.
‘AMERICA SHOULD BE AFRAID’
Soleimani’s picture dominated the front pages of Iranian newspapers close to different parts of the political spectrum. In some the photos were arranged with a backdrop of national flag.
“We will take revenge. America should be afraid of our retaliation,” said Mojtaba Hashemi, 28, a member of the Basij militia in Mashhad. “He was our father. His path will continue.”
But some Iranians feared an all-out military confrontation that could destabilise a country that has faced waves of protests over economic hardships and corruption.
Retired teacher Monireh, 56, worried her son, a student at a university in Tehran, would be called up for duty.
She and many other older Iranians are still haunted by memories of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which killed a total of one million people on the two sides.
Soleimani and other Revolutionary Guards commanders made their names in the conflict and gained the respect of Iranians.
The prospect of another war some 40 years later alarms many.
“I feel so sad for Soleimani’s death but what if America and Iran start a war. I have children. What if they send my son to war?,” said Monireh.
Saba, a 19-year-old student who took part in November in the bloodiest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was worried that economic hardships could worsen.
“The regime struggles on every front from the economy to foreign policy,’ she said.
“They are pushing Iran towards war to try and unite people. Enough living with the fear of war and the pressure of sanctions.” Iran has blamed the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia for the unrest.
‘DIED FOR HIS COUNTRY’
State television aired footage of hundreds of mourners who gathered in front of Soleimani’s house in Tehran and his father’s house in his hometown of Kerman on Friday to pay their respects.
“Soleimani is alive,” shouted Iranians who rallied after Friday prayers across the country, carrying pictures of the military leader and banners bearing the words “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.
“Not only Soleimani’s family but all Iranians are mourning today. Iran is mourning,” said high school student Reza Khojasteh, 17, in the central city of Yazd. “He died for his country. He will always live in my heart.”
Iran‘s faction-ridden elite closed ranks against the United States and Iranian celebrities and intellectuals publicly expressed sorrow.
But not everyone was mourning.
Shokoufeh, a 21-year-old student in the central city of Shiraz, feared that Soleimani’s death would cause more suffering.
“I don’t back his cause. It brought us misery and confrontation and isolation. I want peace with America and our neighbours,” she said.
Shokoufeh and some others hoped Washington and Tehran would use diplomacy to ease the worst crisis in relations since Iranian hardline students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran shortly after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Iranians across the world reacted to Soleimani’s killing on social media. Some used the hashtag #severerevenge.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi Editing by Michael Georgy and Frances Kerry)