KERMAN, IRAN (AFP) - Iranians gathered in Kerman for the burial on Tuesday (Jan 7) of top general Qassem Soleimani in the final stage of funeral processions after he was killed in a United States strike in Iraq.
The massive number of mourners in the hometown of the slain commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force foreign operations arm appeared to match the huge turnout seen in the cities of Teheran, Qom, Mashhad and Ahvaz.
A hugely popular figure in the Islamic Republic, Major-General Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport last Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge".
"The martyr Qassem Soleimani is more powerful... now that he is dead," said the Revolutionary Guards' top general, Major-General Hossein Salami. "The enemy killed him unjustly," he told the sea of black-clad mourners.
Schoolgirls joined chants of "Death to Trump" from the crowd, an AFP correspondent reported.
The assassination of Maj-Gen Soleimani set off an escalating war of words between Iran and the United States.
In Teheran on Monday, President Hassan Rouhani warned Mr Trump to "never threaten" Iran, after the American leader issued a US strike list of 52 targets in the Islamic Republic.
People converged from afar on Azadi Square where two flag-draped coffins were on display, with the second one reportedly containing the remains of Maj-Gen Soleimani's closest aide, Brigadier General Hossein Pourjafari.
"We're here today to pay respects to the great commander of the holy defence," said one of the mourners who came from the southern city of Shiraz to attend the funeral in Kerman.
"Haj Qassem was not only loved in Kerman, or Iran, but also the whole world," Mr Hemmat Dehghan told AFP. "The security of the whole world, Muslims, Shi'ites, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and especially Iran, all owe it to him," said the 56-year-old war veteran.
'Boils the blood'
Another mourner said Maj-Gen Soleimi's assassination "boils the blood of the Iranian people".
"He was seen as a great man who was ready to serve his people both then in the war and now. He must certainly be avenged," said Ms Sara Khaksar, an 18-year-old student.
Last Friday's assassination of the 62-year-old Soleimani heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile Middle East and rattled financial markets.
Iraq's Parliament has demanded the government expel the 5,200 American troops stationed in the country in response to the drone attack, which also killed top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Baghdad requested in a letter to the United Nations - seen by AFP - that the Security Council condemn the US drone strike, so that "the law of the jungle" is not allowed to prevail.
The operation represented "a dangerous escalation that could lead to a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world", wrote the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Mr Mohammed Hussein Bahr-Aluloom.
Markets on edge
World financial markets have been on edge over the crisis. "The new year has started with a bang insofar as volatility is concerned," said market analyst Fawad Razaqzada at Forex.com.
"This is mainly due to the escalation of tensions between the US and Iran after Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani."
On Sunday night, the United States mistakenly notified the Iraqi government of an imminent troop pullout in a letter that sparked confusion in Washington.
"We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure," said the letter, whose authenticity was confirmed to AFP by both Iraqi and US defence officials.
In the letter, US Brigadier General William Seely said the US-led coalition would "be repositioning forces".
But Pentagon Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said the letter was a mere "draft" and "should not have been sent".
"It was a mistake, an honest mistake, a draft unsigned letter, because we are moving forces around," he told reporters in Washington.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said the letter was "inconsistent" with Washington's position and denied there had been a decision to leave Iraq.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg warned on Monday that Iran must avoid "further violence and provocations" after the alliance held emergency talks on the crisis.
The European Union, whose foreign ministers will hold emergency talks on the crisis on Friday, said it was in both Iran and Iraq's interests to "take the path of sobriety and not the path of escalation".
Saudi Arabia - an oil-rich US ally seen as vulnerable to Iranian counter strikes - also appealed for calm after a "very dangerous" escalation.
Maj-Gen Soleimani is expected to be buried at the martyrs' cemetery in Kerman between 2pm and 4pm.