Body of commander slain by U.S. strike arrives in Iran to crowds of mourners

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Soleimani’s body was flown to Ahvaz, in southwest Iran, in a flag-draped coffin following a funeral procession in Baghdad and the two Iraqi shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf.

In footage broadcast on Iranian state television, black-clad mourners filled Ahvaz’s Mollavi Square and surrounding streets, as well as a major bridge. The channel juxtaposed the images of the crowds with a video of a younger Soleimani reciting Persian poetry and Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency described the scene as “glorious.”

The mourners waved black, green and red flags and chanted Shiite religious slogans. Ahvaz, recently the site of intense anti-government unrest and a harsh government crackdown, was also a focal point for some of the heaviest fighting during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, of which Soleimani was a veteran.

An unverified video posted online showed masked youth setting fire to a billboard commemorating Soleimani.

Still, some residents saw the commander as an important figure.

“All schools and businesses are closed today — he was popular here and even more popular now,” said Farnaz, a resident of Ahvaz who declined to give her full name so she could speak freely about the slain commander. “People here have felt insecure and threatened by other countries for decades, so they saw Soleimani as an important and charismatic commander who was protecting their security.”

The funeral procession will continue to Mashhad in northeastern Iran, as well as the capital, Tehran, and the holy city of Qom on Monday. Soleimani will be buried in his hometown, Kerman, on Tuesday.

Iran has vowed to seek revenge for Soleimani’s killing, as the Trump administration announced that it was sending thousands of additional troops to the Middle East.

On Saturday, Iraq was the uneasy epicenter of a region on edge, with rockets falling after dark and Iranian officials and President Trump trading threats of escalating military action.

An Iranian commander quoted by the Tasnim News Agency on Saturday suggested that dozens of American facilities and military assets in the Middle East were at risk, along with Israel, a key U.S. ally.

“Thirty-five vital American positions in the region are within the reach of the Islamic Republic, and Tel Aviv,” the commander, Gen. Gholamali Abuhamzeh, said, citing the Strait of Hormuz as a particularly vital thoroughfare frequented by U.S. warships.

Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, warned members of Iraqi security forces to keep more than half a mile from U.S. military bases, beginning Sunday evening. The militia, which led a siege of the U.S. Embassy before Soleimani’s killing, did not say why it issued the warning.

Trump, tweeting Saturday from his personal resort in West Palm Beach, Fla., appeared to be responding in kind when he said that the United States had targeted multiple sites in Iran and that those targets would be struck should U.S. military sites be attacked or Americans harmed. He also repeated the administration’s justification for Soleimani’s killing, referring to the Iranian commander as a “terrorist leader” who had been planning additional attacks.

“If Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” he tweeted.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State said that “we have increased security and defensive measures at the Iraqi bases that host anti-ISIS coalition troops.”

NATO announced that it was suspending its training of troops in Iraq and the United States said that it had also stepped up security at military bases in the country. The Department of Homeland Security issued a public bulletin about the potential threat for terrorism in the United States amid the surging tensions, while repeating assurances given earlier this week that U.S. officials do not know of any specific, credible threat to the United States.

Later Saturday, rockets were fired toward Baghdad’s Green Zone, site of the U.S. Embassy, and at an air base hosting U.S. troops north of Baghdad, but they caused no casualties, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials, who did not say who fired the rockets.

On Saturday, the White House delivered a formal notification of the drone strike that killed Soleimani to Congress, as is required under the War Powers Act. The report is completely classified, according to a senior Democratic aide, but probably details the administration’s justification for the strike, as well as the constitutional and legislative rationale used to send troops.

NATO, which has several hundred personnel in Iraq, said Saturday that it has temporarily suspended its training of Iraqi forces to counter the Islamic State, according to Dylan White, a NATO spokesman. “The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount. We continue to take all precautions necessary,” he said in an emailed statement.

Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states have reacted nervously to the escalating tensions because of their proximity to Iran and fears of a backlash due to their close partnerships, including military cooperation, with the United States.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called the attack “an assassination” that was a “flagrant violation of the conditions authorizing the presence of U.S. troops” on Iraqi soil.

Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a security spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, said Saturday that U.S. forces are not allowed to conduct military operations in Iraq without the approval of the prime minister, and he hinted that their future in the country is in doubt.

“We have alternatives to train our armed forces,” Khalaf said.

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