By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Ahmed Aboulenein
DUBAI/BAGHDAD, Jan 7 (Reuters) – At least 56 people were killed in a stampede as tens of thousands of mourners packed streets for the funeral of a slain Iranian military commander in his hometown on Tuesday, forcing his burial to be delayed by several hours.
General Qassem Soleimani’s burial went ahead in the early evening in the southeastern city of Kerman, four days after his killing in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq that plunged the region into a new crisis and raised fears of a wider Middle East war.
Soleimani, who commanded the elite Quds Force, was responsible for building up Tehran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was a pivotal figure in orchestrating Iran‘s long-standing campaign to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq.
A senior Iranian official said Tehran was considering several scenarios to avenge his death. Other senior figures have said the Islamic Republic would match the scale of the killing when it responds, but that it would choose the time and place.
U.S. officials have said Soleimani was killed because of solid intelligence indicating forces under his command planned further attacks on U.S. targets in the region, though they have provided no evidence.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN on Tuesday: “We are not looking to start a war with Iran but we are prepared to finish one. What we’d like to see is the situation de-escalated.”
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday Washington had singled out 52 Iranian sites, including ones that are very important to Iranian culture, as targets if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets in response to Soleimani’s death.
On Tuesday, however, Trump told reporters he would obey international law against attacking cultural sites in military conflicts.
Soleimani was a national hero to many Iranians, whether supporters of the clerical leadership or not, but viewed as a dangerous villain by Western governments opposed to Iran‘s arc of influence running across the Levant and into the Gulf region.
Iran‘s opponents say its proxies have fuelled conflicts, killing and displacing people in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Tehran says any operations abroad are at the request of governments and that it offers “advisory support”.
Tuesday’s stampede broke out amid the crush of mourners, killing 56 people, state television said. More than 210 people were injured, an emergency services official told the semi-official Fars news agency.
“Today because of the heavy congestion of the crowd unfortunately a number of our fellow citizens who were mourning were injured and a number were killed,” emergency medical services chief Pirhossein Kolivand told state television.
Soleimani’s body had been taken to holy Shi’ite Muslim cities in Iraq and Iran, as well as the Iranian capital Tehran, before arriving in Kerman for burial in the cemetery’s “martyrs section”, according to the semi-official news agency ISNA.
In each place, huge numbers of people filled thoroughfares, chanting “Death to America” and weeping with emotion. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wept as he led prayers in Tehran.
Prompted by a strong public backlash over the killing of Soleimani on Iraqi soil, lawmakers in Iraq voted on Sunday to demand a removal of all foreign forces from the country.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said the Iraqi military joint operations command had received a letter from the U.S. army concerning a possible U.S. withdrawal. But he said the letter’s English and Arabic language versions were not identical and so Iraq had requested clarifications.
U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said on Monday that a leaked letter from the U.S. military to Iraq that created impressions of an imminent U.S. withdrawal was a poorly worded draft meant only to underscore an increased movement of forces in the region.
Abdul Mahdi has told the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad that the parliamentary resolution must be implemented.
U.S. Defense Secretary Esper, however, told a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday that he had not received a request from Iraq to withdraw U.S. troops from the country and noted that the resolution was non-binding.
About 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, where there has been a U.S. military presence since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in a U.S.-led 2003 invasion, with Washington and Tehran vying for the upper hand in the country.
Foreign forces have been in Iraq mainly as part of a U.S.-led coalition that has trained and backed up Iraqi security forces against the threat of Islamic State militants.
Trump also said on Tuesday that if U.S. forces departed Iraq it would leave Iran with a much bigger footprint in the country, although he would like to withdraw U.S. troops at some point since Washington wanted Baghdad to provide for its own security.
“We will take revenge, a hard and definitive revenge,” the head of Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami, told the throngs in Kerman before the stampede.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said 13 “revenge scenarios” were being considered, Fars news agency reported. Even the weakest option would prove “a historic nightmare for the Americans”, he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in a phone call to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, urged Tehran to avoid any actions that could worsen regional tensions.
Iran, whose coastline runs along a Gulf oil shipping route that includes the narrow Strait of Hormuz, has allied forces across the Middle East through which it can act. Representatives from those groups, including the Palestinian Islamist Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, attended funeral events in Tehran.
Despite its strident rhetoric, analysts say Iran will want to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior U.S. forces.
Friction between Iran and the United States has risen since Trump withdrew in 2018 from a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, approved by his predecessor Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran slashing its vital oil exports.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Alex Richardson)