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Dozens killed in stampede at Iran general’s funeral

(AFP)

Dozens of people were crushed to death after a stampede broke out Tuesday during a massive funeral procession for a top Iranian general assassinated in a US drone strike.

The tragedy came as grieving crowds packed the hometown of Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, a hugely popular figure in the Islamic republic.

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More than 50 people were killed and 212 people injured in the stampede in Kerman, semi-official news agency ISNA said, citing the emergency services chief in the southeastern city, Mohammad Saberi.

Anxious Iranians gathered outside a city hospital to check the lists of victims or show doctors pictures of their missing relatives.

AFP correspondents in Kerman said the streets were filled with mourners, while others took refuge on hillsides around the city, where the general was to be buried at the martyrs’ cemetery.

Soleimani, the head of the Guards’ Quds Force foreign operations arm, was killed on Friday in a US strike near Baghdad international airport, an operation that shocked Iran.

“The enemy killed him unjustly,” the Revolutionary Guards’ top commander, Major General Hossein Salami said, adding the process of “expelling the United States from the region has begun”.

“Our will is firm. We also tell our enemies that we will take revenge, and that if they (strike again) we will set fire to what they love,” he told the sea of black-clad mourners.

Schoolgirls joined chants of “Death to Trump” from the crowd, an AFP correspondent reported.

Tuesday’s funeral comes after days of processions through the southwestern city of Ahvaz and the shrine cities of Qom and Mashhad as well as the capital Tehran.

The assassination of Soleimani set off an escalating war of words between Iran and the United States.

In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani on Monday warned Trump to “never threaten” Iran, after the US leader issued a US strike list of 52 targets in the Islamic republic.

On Tuesday, Iranian lawmakers voted to designate all US forces around the world “terrorists” over Soleimani’s killing.

Parliament also agreed to bolster the coffers of the Quds Force, which Soleimani led, by $244 million (200 million euros).

– ‘Boils the blood’ –

In Kerman, people converged from afar on Azadi Square where two flag-draped coffins were on display, with the second one reportedly containing the remains of Soleimani’s closest aide, Brigadier General Hossein Pourjafari.

“We’re here today to pay respects to the great commander of the holy defence,” said one of the mourners who came from the southern city of Shiraz.

“Haj Qasem was not only loved in Kerman, or Iran, but also the whole world,” Hemmat Dehghan told AFP.

“The security of the whole world, Muslims, Shiites, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and especially Iran, all owe it to him,” said the 56-year-old war veteran.

Another mourner said Soleimani’s assassination “boils the blood of the Iranian people”.

“He was seen as a great man who was ready to serve his people both then in the war and now. He must certainly be avenged,” said Sara Khaksar, an 18-year-old student.

Friday’s assassination of Soleimani, 62, heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile Middle East.

Iraq’s parliament has demanded the government expel the 5,200 American troops stationed in the country in response to the drone attack which also killed top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Baghdad requested in a letter to the UN — seen by AFP — that the Security Council condemn the US strike so that “the law of the jungle” is not allowed to prevail.

The operation represented “a dangerous escalation that could lead to a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world,” wrote Iraq’s UN ambassador Mohammed Hussein Bahr-Aluloom. 

– ‘Path of sobriety’  –

On Sunday night, the US mistakenly notified Baghdad of an imminent troop pullout in a letter that sparked confusion in Washington.

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” said the letter, whose authenticity was confirmed to AFP by both Iraqi and US defence officials. 

In the letter, US Brigadier General William Seely said the US-led coalition would “be repositioning forces”.

But Pentagon Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said the letter was a mere “draft” that was sent by mistake.

Germany said Tuesday it was withdrawing some of its troops deployed to the anti-IS coalition in Iraq.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned on Monday that Iran must avoid “further violence and provocations”.

The European Union, whose foreign ministers will hold emergency talks on the crisis Friday, said it was in both Iran and Iraq’s interests to “take the path of sobriety and not the path of escalation”.

Saudi Arabia — an oil-rich US ally seen as vulnerable to Iranian counter strikes — also appealed for calm after a “very dangerous” escalation.

Iran’s foreign minister said he has been informed by UN chief Antonio Guterres that Washington has denied him a visa for a planned trip to UN headquarters in New York.

“What we know is that the US State Secretary (Mike Pompeo), in a call to the Secretary General of the United Nations, said: ‘We did not have time to issue a visa for Mohammad Javad Zarif and we will not issue a visa’,” Zarif said.

Amir Havasi

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