By Erin Cunningham
Jan. 5, 2020 at 10:54 p.m. GMT+9 The Washington Post
ISTANBUL — The body of an Iranian commander killed in a U.S. drone strike arrived in Iran Sunday as Tehran pledged to limit its response to “military sites.”
Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, was targeted by U.S. forces in Baghdad Friday as he left the airport in a two-car convoy. Eight other people were killed, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a powerful Iraqi militia leader.
“The response for sure will be military and against military sites,” Hossein Dehghan, the military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, said in an interview with CNN. “The only thing that can end this period of war is for the Americans to receive a blow that is equal to the blow they have inflicted.”
The U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State said Sunday that it had paused its mission training Iraqi forces due to “repeated rocket attacks over the last two months” by the Iran-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah and would now focus on protecting its bases from attack. NATO announced Saturday its own suspension of training programs.
Deghan’s remarks followed threats by President Trump on Twitter Saturday to strike “52 Iranian sites. . . some at a very high level & important to Iran and the Iranian culture” should Tehran retaliate against Americans or U.S. interests in the region.
If Trump were to carry out his threats, Dehghan said, “no American military staff, no American political center, no American military base, no American vessel will be safe.”
Iran has 24 locations on the U.N. list of cultural world heritage sites.
In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Embassy released a security alert Sunday advising Americans of “the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks” against both civilian and military targets.
The United States blamed Iran for a brazen drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi state oil facilities in September, a strike that knocked half of the nation’s oil production offline.
On Sunday in Iran, Soleimani’s body was first flown in a flag-draped coffin to the southwestern city of Ahvaz, following a funeral procession in Baghdad and Iraq’s twin Shiite shrine cities, Karbala and Najaf. It was later carried to the northeastern city of Mashhad, home to the shrine of Imam Reza, a revered figure in Shiite Islam. Iran is ruled by a Shiite theocracy.
Footage from Ahvaz broadcast on Iranian state television showed tens of thousands of black-clad mourners waving flags and chanting religious slogans. The channel also 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.”
“All schools and businesses are closed today — he was popular here and even more popular now,” said Farnaz, 33, a computer engineer and resident of Ahvaz. Like other Iranians contacted Sunday, she spoke on the condition that her full name not be used so she could talk freely about the death of a senior military 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,” she said.
Still, Ahvaz and other cities in oil-rich Khuzestan province, home to a large ethnic Arab minority, have a history of anti-government unrest. In November, when protests over cuts to fuel subsidies gripped Iranian cities, security forces launched a brutal crackdown and gunned down scores of demonstrators in Mahshahr, some 70 miles south of Ahvaz. On Sunday, an unverified video posted online showed masked youth setting fire to a billboard commemorating Soleimani.
The slain commander’s procession will continue Monday to the holy city of Qom and the capital, Tehran, where Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will lead prayers at the ceremony. Soleimani will be buried in his hometown, Kerman, on Tuesday.
In Mashhad, home to the shrine of Imam Reza, a revered figure in Shiite Islam, residents described a city paralyzed by preparations for the funeral. Many of those in the streets hailed from Liwa al-Fatemiyoun, a military brigade of mostly Afghan Shiite Hazaras recruited and equipped by the Revolutionary Guard, according to residents.
“All the roads are closed and if there is an emergency, there is no way to move,” said 27-year-old Moen, a construction worker.
“People have mixed feelings about his death,” he said. “Most of the people around me are sad, but also afraid that the recent [anti-government] protests and hundreds of people killed were in vain.”
In Europe, meanwhile, leaders continued to try to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, whose already limited chances of survival have likely been dealt a grievous blow by Soleimani’s killing.
On Sunday, E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced he had invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif to Brussels to discuss the future of the accord even as Iran indicated plans to further reduce its commitments to the deal.
Borrell intends to “keep the unity of the remaining participants in support of the agreement and its full implementation by all parties,” his office said in a statement.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Michael Birnbaum in Antwerp contributed to this report.