By Parisa Hafezi and Jeff Mason
DUBAI/WASHINGTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) – Iran‘s supreme leader wept in grief with hundreds of thousands of mourners thronging Tehran’s streets on Monday for the funeral of military commander Qassem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone on the orders of U.S. President Donald Trump.
As the coffins of General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also died in Friday’s attack in Baghdad, were passed over the heads of mourners, Soleimani’s successor vowed to expel U.S. forces from the region in revenge.
The killing of Soleimani, the architect of Iran‘s drive to extend its influence across the Middle East, has stoked concern around the globe that a broader regional conflict could erupt.
Trump has listed 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, that could be hit if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or U.S. assets, although U.S. officials sought to play down the president’s reference to cultural targets.
General Esmail Ghaani, the new commander of the Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards charged with overseas operations, promised to “continue martyr Soleimani’s cause as firmly as before with the help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to rid the region of America”.
“God the Almighty has promised to take martyr Soleimani’s revenge,” he told state television. “Certainly, actions will be taken.”
Other political and military leaders have made similar, unspecific threats. Iran, which lies at the mouth of the key Gulf oil shipping route, has a range of proxy forces in the region through which it could act.
The crowd in Tehran, which state media said numbered in the millions, recalled the masses that gathered in 1989 for the funeral of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Soleimani was a national hero in Iran – even to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Iran‘s clerical rulers.
Aerial footage showed people packing thoroughfares and side streets and chanting “Death to America!”, a welcome show of national unity for Tehran after anti-government protests in November in which many demonstrators were killed.
Iran‘s demand that U.S. forces quit the region gained traction on Sunday when Iraq’s parliament backed the prime minister’s recommendation for foreign troops to be ordered out.
Iraq’s rival Shi’ite leaders, including ones opposed to Iranian influence, have united since Friday’s attack to call for the expulsion of U.S. troops, who number about 5,000.
Soleimani, widely seen as Iran‘s second most powerful figure behind Khamenei, built a network of proxy forces that formed a crescent of influence – and a direct challenge to the United States and its regional allies led by Saudi Arabia – stretching from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. Outside the crescent, Iran nurtured allied Palestinian and Yemeni groups.
He notably mobilised Shi’ite Muslim militia forces in Iraq that helped to crush Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that had seized control of swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2013-14.
Washington, however, blames Soleimani for attacks on U.S. forces and their allies.
Prayers at Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran, which moves to the general’s southern home city of Kerman on Tuesday, were led by Khamenei, who wept as he spoke.
His daughter Zeinab Soleimani told mourners the United States would face a “dark day” for her father’s death.
Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, on his first trip to Iran since taking up his role in 2017, said “resistance against America” would continue.
Iran adding to tensions on Sunday by dropping all limitations on its uranium enrichment — another step back from commitments under a landmark deal with major powers in 2015 to curtail Iran‘s nuclear programme that Trump abandoned in 2018.
European Union foreign ministers plan to hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss ways to save the deal, two diplomats said.
After quitting the deal, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to halt Iranian oil exports, the main source of government revenues. Iran‘s economy has been in freefall as the currency has plunged.
Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Monday that Trump was still confident he could renegotiate a new nuclear agreement “if Iran wants to start behaving like a normal country”.
Tehran has said Washington must return to the existing nuclear pact and lift sanctions before any talks can take place.
Trump stood by remarks that cultural sites were potential targets, despite criticism from U.S. politicians that this amounted to a threat to commit war crimes.
“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” Trump said.
Democratic critics of the Republican president have said Trump was reckless in authorising the strike. Republicans in the U.S. Congress have generally backed his move.
Trump also threatened sanctions against Iraq and said Baghdad would have to pay Washington for an air base in Iraq if U.S. troops were required to leave.
It was not clear if Washington had advised its allies of its plans before killing Soleimani. Britain, which also has troops in Iraq, said it understood why the United States had acted but called for a de-escalation to avoid war.
(Reporting by Reuters reporters in Dubai Newsroom; Jeff Mason in Washington; Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)