Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wept in grief with hundreds of thousands of mourners thronging Tehran's streets on Monday for the funeral of military commander Qassem Soleimani, killed by a US drone on US President Donald Trump's orders, reports Reuters.
The coffins of General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also died in Friday's attack in Baghdad, were draped in their national flags and passed from hand to hand over the heads of mourners in central Tehran.
Responding to Trump's threats to hit 52 Iranian sites if Tehran retaliates for the drone strike, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani pointedly wrote on Twitter: "Never threaten the Iranian nation." And Soleimani's successor vowed to expel US forces from the Middle East in revenge.
Khamenei, 80, led prayers at the funeral, pausing as his voice cracked with emotion. Soleimani, 62, was a national hero in Iran, even to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Iran's clerical rulers.
Aerial footage showed people, many clad in black, packing thoroughfares and side streets in the Iranian capital, chanting "Death to America!" – a show of national unity after anti-government protests in November in which many demonstrators were killed.
The crowd, which state media said numbered in the millions, recalled the masses of people that gathered in 1989 for the funeral of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Soleimani, the architect of Iran's drive to extend its influence across the Middle East, was widely seen as Iran's second most powerful figure behind Khamenei.
His killing of Soleimani has prompted concern around the world that a broader regional conflict could flare.
Trump on Saturday vowed to strike 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or US assets, and stood by his threat on Sunday, though American officials sought to downplay his reference to cultural targets. The 52 figure, Trump noted, matched the number of US Embassy hostages held for 444 days after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Rouhani, regarded as a moderate, responded to Trump on Twitter.
"Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655," Rouhani wrote, referring to the 1988 shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US warship in which 290 were killed.
Trump also took to Twitter to reiterate the White House stance that "Iran will never have a nuclear weapon" but gave no other details.