At least 56 people were killed in a stampede as tens of thousands of mourners packed streets for the funeral of a slain Iranian military commander in his hometown on Tuesday, forcing his burial to be delayed by several hours, state media said.
General Qassem Soleimani's burial began in late afternoon in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman, four days after his killing in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq that plunged the region into a new crisis and raised fears of broader conflict.
"A few minutes ago his body was transferred to the martyrs section of Kerman cemetery," the semi-official news agency ISNA reported, adding that Soleimani's interment had begun.
A senior Iranian official said Tehran was considering several scenarios to avenge his killing. Other senior figures have said Iran will match the scale of Soleimani's killing when it responds, but that it will choose the time and place.
Tuesday's stampede broke out amid the crush of mourners, killing 56 people and wounding another 213, Iran's state TV said, citing Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency medical services.
"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," Kolivand said.
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The body of Soleimani, a national hero to many Iranians but viewed as a dangerous villain by Western governments opposed to the Islamic Republic, 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. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shed tears when leading prayers in Tehran.
Soleimani, who commanded the elite Quds Force, was responsible for building up Tehran's network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was a key figure in orchestrating Iran's long-standing campaign to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq.
Iran's opponents say its proxies have fuelled conflicts, killing and displacing people in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Tehran says any operations abroad are at the request of governments and that it offers "advisory support".
On Tuesday, the U.S. warned ships across Mideast waterways crucial to global energy supplies there’s the “possibility of Iranian action against U.S. maritime interests” in the region. The U.S. Maritime Administration cited rising threats after an American drone strike in Baghdad killed Soleimani.
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 since the 2003 U.S. invasion. NATO and Germany both announced some of their troops would be moved, while a French government source said no movements were being planned.
Calls for revenge
Soleimani's death has sparked calls across Iran for revenge against America for a slaying that’s drastically raised tensions across the Middle East. The U.S. government warned ships of an unspecified threat from Iran across all the Mideast's waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies.
Early Tuesday, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard threatened to “set ablaze” places supported by the United States over the killing of a top Iranian general in a U.S. airstrike last week, sparking cries from the crowd of supporters of “Death to Israel!” Hossein Salami made the pledge before a crowd of thousands gathered in a central square in Kerman before a casket carrying Soleimani's remains.
The outpouring of grief was an unprecedented honor for a man viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force. The U.S. blames him for the killing of American troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before his death Friday in a drone strike near Baghdad’s airport. Soleimani also led forces in Syria backing President Bashar Assad in a long war, and he also served as the point man for Iranian proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
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His slaying already has pushed Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge. In Baghdad, the parliament has called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, something analysts fear could allow Islamic State militants to mount a comeback.
Speaking in Kerman, Salami 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. We will set ablaze where they like,” Salami said, drawing the cries of “Death to Israel!”
Israel is a longtime regional foe of Iran.
According to a report on Tuesday 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,
“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.
The U.S. Maritime Administration warned Tuesday ships across the Mideast, citing the rising threats after the U.S. killed Soleimani. “The Iranian response to this action, if any, is unknown, but there remains the possibility of Iranian action against U.S. maritime interests in the region,” it said.
Oil tankers were targeted in mine attacks last year the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied being responsible though it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s crude oil travels.
The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet earlier said it could respond to any threat.
"Afloat or ashore, we remain vigilant to assess, mitigate and defeat threats to our forward-deployed forces and our interests," 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Joshua Frey said.
Iran's parliament, meanwhile, has 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.”
The U.S. Defense Department used the Guard’s designation as a terror organization in the U.S. to support the strike that killed Soleimani. The decision by Iran’s parliament, done by a special procedure to speed the bill to law, comes as officials across the country threaten to retaliate for Soleimani’s killing.
The vote also saw lawmakers approve funding for the Quds Force with an additional 200 million euros, or about $224 million.
Also Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. had declined to issue him a visa to travel to New York for upcoming meetings at the United Nations. The U.S. as the host of the U.N. headquarters is supposed to allow foreign officials to attend such meetings.
“This is because they fear someone will go there and tell the truth to the American people,” Zarif said. "But they are mistaken. The world is not limited to New York. You can speak with American people from Tehran too and we will do that.”
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Solemani will be buried later Tuesday between the graves of Enayatollah Talebizadeh and Mohammad Hossein Yousef Elahi, two former Guard comrades. The two died in Operation Dawn 8 in Iran's 1980s war with Iraq in which Soleimani also took part, a 1986 amphibious assault that cut Iraq off from the Persian Gulf and led to the end of the bloody war that killed 1 million people.