By Laila Bassam and Nadine Awadalla
BEIRUT, Jan 5 (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Sunday the U.S. military in the Middle East would pay the price for the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, warning that U.S. soldiers and officers would return home in coffins.
In a speech marking the death of Soleimani and a top Iraqi militia commander in a targeted U.S. air strike, Nasrallah said responding to the killing was not only Iran‘s responsibility but the responsibility of its allies too.
But U.S. civilians should not be targeted, he said.
Founded by Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, Lebanese group Hezbollah is a critical part of an Iranian-backed regional military alliance.
Soleimani, Iran‘s pre-eminent military commander, was killed on Friday in an attack that took long-running hostilities between Washington and Tehran into uncharted territory and raised the spectre of wider conflict in the Middle East.
“Fair punishment is (aimed at) the American military presence in the region: American military bases, American naval ships, every American officer and soldier in our countries and region,” Nasrallah said.
“The American army is the one that killed them and it is the one that will pay the price,” Nasrallah said, although U.S. civilians in the region “should not be touched” because this would serve the agenda of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“When the coffins of American soldiers and officers begin to be transported … to the United States, Trump and his administration will realise that they have really lost the region and will lose the elections,” Nasrallah said, referring to the 2020 U.S. presidential vote.
The United States holds Hezbollah responsible for the suicide bombing that destroyed U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 servicemen, and a suicide bombing the same year on the U.S. embassy.
U.S. forces withdrew from Lebanon the following year.
In an apparent reference to those attacks, Nasrallah said potential suicide attackers were present in the region in greater numbers than in the past.
Hezbollah has helped establish Iran-backed paramilitary groups in Syria and Iraq and inspired the Iran-aligned Houthis. Together with Palestinian groups and the Syrian government, they are part of what Iran calls the “axis of resistance”.
“We must all seek just punishment across the reach of our region and our nation,” Nasrallah said during a rally by Hezbollah supporters in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut.
Some at the rally chanted “death to America”, waved Hezbollah’s yellow flag, and held aloft pictures of Soleimani.
Nasrallah said the killing marked a new chapter in the history of the Middle East. Attacks on the U.S. military in the region would force U.S. forces to withdraw “humiliated, defeated and in terror … as they left in the past”, he said.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Nadine Awadallah Writing by Tom Perry Editing by Kevin Liffey and David Holmes)