DUBAI/BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Dozens of people were killed in a stampede as crowds of mourners packed streets for the funeral of a slain military Iranian commander in his hometown of Kerman on Tuesday, forcing his burial to be postponed, state-affiliated media reported.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered in Kerman to pay tribute to General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq on Friday.
A stampede broke out amid the crush, killing 32 people and injuring about 190, the semi-official Fars news agency reported, citing an emergency services official. One state media agency reported 35 dead, while others reported fatalities without giving figures.
Iran’s ISNA news agency said the burial of Soleimani had been postponed, but did not say how long any delay would last.
“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.
He did not give further details.
The body of Soleimani, a national hero whose death has united many Iranians, had been taken to Iraqi and Iranian cities before arriving in Kerman for burial.
In each place, huge numbers of people filled thoroughfares, chanting “Death to America” and weeping with emotion. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shed tears as led prayers in Tehran on Monday.
In other developments on Tuesday, a senior Iranian official said Tehran was considering 13 scenarios to avenge his killing.
In Washington, the U.S. defense secretary denied reports the U.S. military was preparing to withdraw from Iraq, where Tehran has vied with Washington for influence over nearly two decades of war and unrest.
Soleimani was responsible for building up Tehran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East and he was a key figure in orchestrating Iran’s long-standing campaign to drive U.S. forces out of its neighbor Iraq.
U.S. and Iranian warnings of new strikes and retaliation have also 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.
“We will take revenge, a hard and definitive revenge,” the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami, told the crowds in Kerman prior to the stampede.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and military commanders have said Iranian retaliation for the U.S. action on Friday would match the scale of Soleimani’s killing but that it would be at a time and place of Tehran’s choosing.
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.
Iran, whose southern coast stretches along a Gulf oil shipping route that includes the narrow Strait of Hormuz, has allied forces across the Middle East through which it could act. Representatives from those groups, including the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, attended the funeral events in Tehran.
Despite its strident rhetoric, analysts say Iran will seek to avoid any conventional conflict with the United States but asymmetric strikes, such as sabotage or other military actions via proxies, are more likely.
Trump has promised strikes on 52 Iranian targets, including possibly cultural sites, if Iran retaliates.
Reuters and other media reported on Monday that the U.S. military had sent a letter to Iraqi officials informing them that U.S. troops were preparing to leave.
“In order to conduct this task, Coalition Forces are required to take certain measures to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner,” it said.
However, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said there had been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq. “I don’t know what that letter is,” he said.
U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the letter was a “poorly worded” draft document meant only to underscore increased movement by U.S. forces.
FRICTION SINCE U.S. QUIT DEAL
On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament, dominated by lawmakers representing Muslim Shia groups, passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.
Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad on Monday that both sides needed to work together to implement the resolution.
Friction between Iran and the United States has risen since Washington withdrew in 2018 from a nuclear deal between Tehran and other world powers. The United States has imposed new economic sanctions on Iran and Tehran said on Sunday it was dropping all limitations on uranium enrichment, its latest step back from commitments under the deal.
The U.S. administration denied a visa to allow Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York on Thursday, a U.S. official said.
Trump’s U.S. political rivals have challenged his decision to order the killing of Soleimani and its timing in a U.S. election year. His administration said Soleimani was planning new attacks on U.S. interests but has offered no evidence.
U.S. general Milley said the threat from Soleimani was imminent. “We would have been culpably negligent to the American people had we not made the decision we made,” he said.
Trump administration officials will provide a classified briefing for U.S. senators on Wednesday on events in Iraq after some lawmakers accused the White House of risking a broad conflict without a strategy.
Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan
Image: Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike on Friday, in the city of Kerman, Iran, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 (Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP)