Stampede kills at least 56, injures 200 at Soleimani's funeral
TEHRAN-The Associated Press/Reuters
A stampede broke out on Jan. 7 at the funeral for a top Iranian general slain in a U.S. airstrike, and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession, Iranian news reports said.
The U.S. continued to reinforce its own positions in the region and warned of an unspecified threat to shipping from Iran in the region's waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies. U.S. embassies and consulates from Asia to Africa and Europe issued security alerts for Americans. The U.S. Air Force launched a drill with 52 fighter jets in Utah, just days after President Donald Trump threatened to hit 52 sites in Iran.
Jan. 7's deadly stampede took place in Soleimani's hometown of Kerman as his coffin was being borne through the city in southeastern Iran, said Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran's emergency medical services.
There was no information about what set off the crush in the packed streets, and online videos showed only its aftermath: people lying apparently lifeless, their faces covered by clothing, emergency crews performing CPR on the fallen, and onlookers wailing and crying out to God.
"Unfortunately as a result of the stampede, some of our compatriots have been injured and some have been killed during the funeral processions," Koulivand said, and state TV quoted him as saying that 56 had died and 213 had been injured.
Soleimani's burial was delayed, with no new time given, because of concerns about the huge crowd at the cemetery, the semi-official ISNA news agency said. But officials lowered the shroud-wrapped remains of Qassem Soleimani into the ground in the southeastern city of Kerman just before 6 a.m. on Jan. 8.
A procession in Tehran on Jan. 7 drew over 1 million people in the Iranian capital, crowding both main thoroughfares and side streets in Tehran.
The death of Soleimani, who built up Tehran's network of proxy forces across the region, has prompted mass mourning in Iran and led to renewed Iranian threats to drive U.S. troops from Iraq, where Tehran has vied with Washington for influence.
U.S. and Iranian warnings of new strikes and retaliation have stoked concerns about a broader Middle East conflict and led to calls in the U.S. Congress for legislation to stop U.S. President Donald Trump going to war with Iran.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and top military commanders have said Iranian retaliation for the U.S. action would match the scale of Soleimani's killing but that it would be at a time and place of Tehran's choosing.
Soleimani was widely seen as Iran's second most powerful figure behind Khamenei.
Salami on Jan. 7 praised Soleimani's exploits, describing him as essential to backing Palestinian groups, Yemen's Houthi rebels and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. As a martyr, Soleimani represented an even greater threat to Iran's enemies, Salami said.
"We will take revenge, a hard and definitive revenge," the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Hossein Salami told tens of thousands of mourners in Soleimani's hometown of Kerman, many of them chanting "Death to America" and waving the Iranian flag.
General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani's successor as commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards elite Quds Force, 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."
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 through which it could act.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a cybersecurity warning on Jan. 6, citing increased tension with Iran and its proxies.
According to a report on Jan. 7 by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, Iran has worked up 13 sets of plans for revenge for Soleimani's killing. The report quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, as saying that even the weakest among them would be a "historic nightmare'' for the U.S.
He declined to give any details, the Associated Press reported on Jan. 7.
"If the U.S. troops do not leave our region voluntarily and upright, we will do something to carry their bodies horizontally out," Shamkhani said.
Iran's parliament, meanwhile, passed an urgent bill declaring the U.S. military's command at the Pentagon and those acting on its behalf in Soleimani's killing as "terrorists," subject to Iranian sanctions.
The measure appears to be an attempt to mirror a decision by President Donald Trump in April to declare the Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization.''
Pentagon chief denies US is leaving Iraq
The United States has no plans to pull its troops out of Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Jan. 6, following reports by Reuters and other media of an American military letter informing Iraqi officials about repositioning troops in preparation for leaving the country.
Iran's demand for U.S. forces to withdraw from the region gained traction on Jan. 5 when Iraq's parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.
The American military letter said U.S.-led coalition forces would use helicopters to evacuate. Several were heard flying over Baghdad on Jan. 6 night, although it was not immediately clear if that was related.
"There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Esper told Pentagon reporters, adding there were no plans issued to prepare to leave.
"I don't know what that letter is ... We're trying to find out where that's coming from, what that is. But there's been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period," Esper said.
The letter caused confusion about the future of U.S. forces in Iraq, who now number 5,000. A U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
The top U.S. military officer told reporters the letter was a draft document meant only to underscore increased movement by U.S. forces. "Poorly worded implies withdrawal. That's not what's happening," said Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The authenticity of the letter, addressed to the Iraqi Defence Ministry's Combined Joint Operations, had been confirmed to Reuters by an Iraqi military source.
Esper said Washington was still committed to countering ISIL in Iraq, alongside allies and partners.
"Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement," the letter stated.
It was signed by U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General William Seely III, commanding general of the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIL. CJTF-OIR stands for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
"We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure," the letter said.
Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad on Jan. 6 that both nations needed to implement the Iraqi parliamentary resolution, the premier's office said in a statement. It did not give a timeline.
Khamenei led prayers at the funeral in the Iranian capital, pausing as his voice cracked with emotion. Soleimani, 62, was a national hero even to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Iran's clerical rulers.
Mourners packed the streets, chanting: "Death to America!" - a show of national unity after anti-government protests in November in which many demonstrators were killed.
The crowd, which state media said numbered in the millions, recalled the masses gathered in 1989 for the funeral of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The body of Soleimani has arrived in his home town of Kerman in southeast Iran for burial, the official IRNA news agency said on Jan. 7.
State TV broadcast live images of thousands of people in the streets of the town, many of them dressed in black, to mourn Soleimani.
The killing of Soleimani has prompted fears around the world of a broader regional conflict, as well as calls in the U.S. Congress for legislation to keep Trump from going to war against Iran.
Esper, Milley and other top U.S. officials agreed to provide a classified briefing for U.S. senators on Jan. 8 to discuss events in Iraq after some lawmakers accused the White House of risking a broad conflict without a strategy.
Amid the tensions, the Trump administration denied a visa that would have allowed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York on Jan. 9, a U.S. official said, as Tehran faces the possible reimposition of U.N. sanctions lifted under a landmark 2015 agreement with major powers to curtail its nuclear program.
Iran on Jan. 6 dropped all limitations on its uranium enrichment, another step back from commitments under the deal, which Trump abandoned in 2018.
France's foreign minister said European powers would decide in coming days whether to launch a dispute resolution process that could lead to a reinstatement of U.N. sanctions on Iran.
Trump has vowed to strike 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or U.S. assets, although U.S. officials sought to downplay his reference to cultural targets. The 52 figure, Trump noted, matched the number of U.S. Embassy hostages held for 444 days after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Responding to Trump, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter on Jan. 6: "Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655." He referred to the 1988 shooting down of an Iranian airline by a U.S. warship in which 290 were killed.
Trump also took to Twitter to reiterate the White House stance that "Iran will never have a nuclear weapon."
Meanwhile, Israel's energy minister said on Jan. 7 it is too early to determine whether Iran is on the path towards building a nuclear weapon after it announced it would abandon limitations on enriching uranium.
"It's too early to say," the minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio when asked if Iran was on the way towards constructing an atomic bomb. "We have to wait and see."
Steinitz, a member of Israel's security cabinet, reiterated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pledge that Israel would never allow arch-enemy Iran to have nuclear weapons.
But he appeared to try to distance Israel - whose military, according to Army Radio, went on alert after Friday's U.S. strike in Iraq - from the current heightened tensions between the United States and Iran.
"We are standing on the sidelines, observing events," he said.