Huge crowds honour slain Iranian general

Farshid Motahari, dpa
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APTOPIX Iran Soleimani

Mourners have turned out for the arrival of top general Qassem Soleimani's body to Iran

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered for a funeral procession in the town of Ahvaz to commemorate Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general whose death in a US drone strike has stoked fears of a new war in the Middle East.

A sea of mourners dressed in black gathered in the south-western city, some holding portraits of the popular commander who led Iran's elite Quds Force and who died in a targeted US killing in Baghdad.

Soleimani, 62, was considered one of Iran's most influential military leaders, wielding influence in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East where Iran has a foothold.

US President Donald Trump warned late Saturday that if Tehran carries out its promised "harsh revenge" for the killing, then the US will target 52 sites in the Islamic Republic.

Trump did not specify the sites but described the targets on Twitter as being "at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture."

The sites, Trump added, "WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!"

Trump ordered the strike on Soleimani, justifying the move by saying that Soleimani "was plotting to kill many more" Americans.

Soleimani's remains were brought from Baghdad to Ahvaz in a coffin draped in the Iranian flag just hours before the start of the the procession, which was broadcast live on several Iranian TV channels.

A day earlier, thousands of people poured into the streets of the Iraqi capital Baghdad to pay respects, with angry mourners chanting anti-US slogans such as "Death to America!" and calling for revenge.

Millions of Iranians are expected to take part in cross-country events to honour Soleimani in the days preceding his burial in his hometown of Kerman on Tuesday.

Soleimani was considered a hero in Iran for his battlefield role in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in which Ahvaz was a scene of conflict.

After Sunday's funeral march in Ahvaz, a procession is scheduled in the north-eastern city of Mashad. A major ceremony is also set to be held in Tehran, with top leaders present.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Soleimani's family to offer his condolences on Saturday evening, Iran's IRNA news agency reported.

Under the Trump administration, the US designated Soleimani's Quds Force a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. The Pentagon has said the organisation is responsible for the deaths of US and coalition troops serving in Iraq.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed "harsh retaliation" for his killing. Soleimani died along with Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the deputy head of Iraq's Muslim Shi'Ite militia Hashd al-Shaabi, and six other Iran-allied militiamen.

Al-Mohandes' remains have also been returned to Iran, local media report.

Last week, thousands of supporters of the Hashd al-Shaabi broke into the US embassy compound in Baghdad to protest US strikes in Iraq and Syria that targeted the Kataib Hezbollah militia group, a Hashd al-Shaabi faction. The US airstrikes killed at least 25 militiamen.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reinstated US sanctions in what his administration calls a "maximum pressure campaign."