Tens of thousands of mourners clad in black have filled the streets of the Iranian city of Ahvaz to pay their respects to Qassem Soleimani, the country’s most powerful and revered military commander who was assassinated by a US air strike in Iraq.
Soleimani’s body was flown to the southwestern city early on Sunday, two days after his killing triggered a dramatic escalation of tensions in the Middle East. Several others were also killed in Friday’s strike on a convoy at Baghdad airport, including the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
In live footage aired on Sunday on Iranian state TV, tens of thousands of mourners marched through Ahvaz holding up portraits of Soleimani, seen as a hero for his role in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and for spearheading Iran’s Middle East operations as chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) overseas forces.
The footage showed crowds thronging Mollavi Square with flags in green, white and red – depicting the blood of “martyrs” – men and women weeping as they beat their chests to the sound of chants.
Authorities plan to take Soleimani’s body to the holy city of Mashhad later on Sunday, as well as Tehran and the holy city of Qom on Monday, for public mourning processions, then to his hometown of Kerman for burial on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Mashhad, said mourners had begun gathering at the Imam Reza shrine where Soleimani’s coffin would later be displayed.
“He is highly revered and loved. Many people say they can’t believe he’s gone. The whole country is in mourning,” Jabbari said.
“Aside from the grief… there is a lot of anger and frustration. Iranians want their government and their military to respond. They want revenge.”