The streets of Tehran were full of black-clad mourners on Monday, sending off Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general whose death by U.S. drone strike last week has stoked fears of a new war in the Middle East.
Millions of Iranians are expected to take part in nationwide events honouring Soleimani in the lead-up to his Tuesday burial in his home town of Kerman.
The death has created fears of a new war between the U.S. and Iran and prompted Iran to drop any cooperation with a 2015 deal to limits its nuclear weapons programmes.
It also prompted Iraqi legislators to call for the removal of U.S. troops there, since Soleimani was killed at Baghdad’s airport.
The U.S. said Soleimani had to be targeted because he was planning attacks on U.S. citizens.
However, the incident may have turned Soleimani into a martyr in Iran.
Interestingly, many of those who turned out for the burial marches did not seem to be blind supporters of the Iranian regime.
“Soleimani was a good and loyal soldier who defended our country for decades,” said a 43-year-old plumber who identified himself only as Behnam M.
He credited the dead general with keeping militias of the Islamic State organisation out of Iran after they spread through Iraq and Syria.
“Soleiman prevented that and that’s why we’re all thankful to him,” he said.
Another woman, who identified herself as Massumeh H, a 39-year-old housewife, said she was no fan of the government.
She said her son studies in Minnesota and is very happy there. She added that she has no problems with the U.S. or Americans.
Nonetheless, she was out with the crowds shouting: “Death to the USA. This Trump is a complete idiot.”
She said Trump had no right to target an Iranian soldier in another country just because he was pursuing interests different from those of the White House.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei conducted a prayer for the dead at the University of Tehran early Monday, with thousands present, including President Hassan Rowhani.
The ceremony was broadcast live on almost all the country’s television channels.
The keynote speaker was Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the militant Hamas group, which controls the Gaza Strip. Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab, also spoke.
“The U.S. and the Zionists should not think that the fight against them will be interrupted with my father’s death,” she said.
“It will continue without him.”
Afterwards, Soleimani’s body is due to be transported to Azadi Square in the west of Tehran.
Millions of people are expected to be waiting along the almost 3km-long stretch to say goodbye to the former commander of the elite Quds Force, a division within Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
The government declared on Monday a local public holiday in Tehran so that everyone could take part in the ceremony.
Several streets in the city centre were closed to cars because of the huge number of people expected, and schools and universities remained closed.
Everywhere, walls are plastered with posters of Soleimani with the phrase “You are gone, but we will keep following your path” printed on them.
From Tehran, Soleimani’s body is to be brought to the Shiite stronghold of Qom, where another ceremony in front of a mausoleum is planned.
Soleimani is expected to be finally laid to rest on Tuesday in his birthplace, the south-eastern town of Kerman, where the day has been declared a holiday.
This follows events on Sunday where hundreds of thousands of Iranians mourned Soleimani in Ahvaz in south-west Iran and in the holy city of Mashhad in north-east Iran, according to local media.
Aerial images from both cities show queues of people kilometres long.
The crowds were so massive that a third event with Iran’s entire leadership on Sunday evening at the Imam Khomenei Mosque in Tehran had to be cancelled because Soleimani’s body could not be transported into the Iranian capital.
The events are against the backdrop of ever worsening relations between Washington and Iran and Iraq.
Iran has threatened retaliation for the attack, which prompted Trump to declare he would order attacks on Iranian cultural heritage sites in such a case.
He has also threatened sanctions on Iraq should U.S. troops be forcibly removed.