KERMAN, Iran: Iranian mourners gather around a vehicle carrying the coffin of slain top general Qasem Soleimani during the final stage of funeral processions in his hometown yesterday. – AFP

KERMAN/BAGHDAD: At least 56 people were killed in a stampede as tens of thousands of mourners packed streets for the funeral of a slain Iranian military commander in his hometown yesterday, forcing his burial to be delayed by several hours, state media said. General Qassem Soleimani’s burial began in the early evening in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman, four days after his killing in a US drone strike in Iraq that plunged the region into a new crisis and raised fears of broader conflict.

“A few minutes ago his body was transferred to the martyrs section of Kerman cemetery,” the semi-official news agency ISNA reported, adding that Soleimani’s interment had begun. Soleimani, who commanded the elite Quds Force, was responsible for building up Tehran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was a pivotal figure in orchestrating Iran’s long-standing campaign to drive US forces out of Iraq.

A senior Iranian official said Tehran was considering several scenarios to avenge his death. Other senior figures have said the Islamic Republic would match the scale of the killing when it responds, but that it would choose the time and place. Yesterday’s stampede broke out amid the crush of mourners, killing 56 people, state television said, raising the toll from 50 previously. More than 210 people were injured, an emergency services official told the semi-official Fars news agency.

“Today because of the heavy congestion of the crowd unfortunately a number of our fellow citizens who were mourning were injured and a number were killed,” emergency medical services chief Pirhossein Kolivand told state television. The streets of Kerman overflowed with mourners, while others took refuge on hillsides around the city, where the general was to be buried at the martyrs’ cemetery.

“The enemy killed him unjustly,” the Revolutionary Guards’ top commander, Major General Hossein Salami said, adding that the process of “expelling the United States from the region has begun”. “Our will is firm. We also tell our enemies that we will take revenge, and that if they (strike again) we will set fire to what they love,” he told the sea of black-clad mourners. Schoolgirls joined chants of “Death to Trump” from the crowd.

Soleimani was a national hero to many Iranians, whether supporters of the clerical leadership or not. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said 13 “revenge scenarios” were being considered, Fars news agency reported. Even the weakest option would prove “a historic nightmare for the Americans”, he said.

The assassination of Soleimani set off an escalating war of words between Iran and the United States. In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani on Monday warned Trump to “never threaten” Iran, after the US leader issued a US strike list of 52 targets in the Islamic republic. Yesterday, Iranian lawmakers voted to designate all US forces around the world “terrorists” over Soleimani’s killing. Parliament also agreed to bolster the coffers of the Quds Force by $244 million.

In Kerman, people converged from afar on Azadi Square where two flag-draped coffins were on display, with the second one reportedly containing the remains of Soleimani’s closest aide, Brigadier General Hossein Pourjafari. “We’re here today to pay respects to the great commander of the holy defense,” said one of the mourners who came from the southern city of Shiraz. “Haj Qasem was not only loved in Kerman, or Iran, but also the whole world,” Hemmat Dehghan told AFP. “The security of the whole world, Muslims, Shiites, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and especially Iran, all owe it to him,” said the 56-year-old war veteran. Another mourner said Soleimani’s assassination “boils the blood of the Iranian people”.

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 UN – seen by AFP – that the Security Council condemn the US 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 Iraq’s UN ambassador Mohammed Hussein Bahr-Aluloom.

On Sunday night, the US mistakenly notified Baghdad 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 defense officials. In the letter, US Brigadier General William Seely said the US-led coalition would “be repositioning forces”.

“In order to conduct this task, Coalition Forces are required to take certain measures to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner,” said the letter. It said helicopters would be travelling in and around Baghdad’s Green Zone where the US embassy is located as part of the preparations. AFP could hear helicopters flying low over Baghdad throughout the night on Monday.

But Pentagon Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said the letter was a draft that was sent by mistake. “It was a mistake, an honest mistake, a draft unsigned letter, because we are moving forces around,” Milley told reporters in Washington. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the letter was “inconsistent” with Washington’s position and denied there had been a decision to leave Iraq.

Some of Canada’s 500 military personnel based in Iraq will be temporarily moved to Kuwait for safety reasons, the country’s top military official said yesterday, due to fears of possible retaliation there. General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defense staff, said in a letter to military families that “the news coming out of the Middle East is alarming for many of you”. “Some of our people will be moved temporarily from Iraq to Kuwait,” he added. Simply put, we are doing this to ensure their safety and security.”

Germany said it was withdrawing some of its troops deployed to the anti-IS coalition in the country. NATO also said it would temporarily reduce its presence in Iraq because of the increased risk to troop safety. France, however, has “no intention” of pulling its troops from Iraq, a French government source told AFP. Saudi Arabia – an oil-rich US ally seen as vulnerable to Iranian counter strikes – also appealed for calm after a “very dangerous” escalation.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was informed by UN chief Antonio Guterres that Washington had denied him a visa for a planned trip to UN headquarters in New York. “What we know is that the US State Secretary (Mike Pompeo), in a call to the Secretary General of the United Nations, said: ‘We did not have time to issue a visa for Mohammad Javad Zarif and we will not issue a visa’,” Zarif said. “The Secretary General responded by saying that it is Iran’s right to take part in this session,” Tehran’s top diplomat said, quoted by semi-official news agency ISNA.

Zarif was speaking to reporters in Tehran at a gathering to promote an Iranian peace plan for the Gulf. Zarif later took to Twitter, saying the rejection violated the terms of a 1947 agreement on the travel of representatives of UN members to and from the headquarters. But he said “denying me a visa‚Ķ pales in comparison to” US sanctions and threats, as well as the “cowardly assassination” of Soleimani last week. “What are they really afraid of? Truth?” he tweeted.

Zarif said the US visa decision was “a sign of the bankruptcy of the US government and Trump’s regime”, according to ISNA. The Iranian foreign minister said he had been planning to go to UN headquarters on Thursday for an open debate on “Upholding the Charter of the United Nations”. But he added that he had also intended to “raise America’s crimes” during his visit to New York.

Trump’s US political rivals have challenged his decision to order the killing of Soleimani and questioned its timing in a US election year. His administration said Soleimani was planning new attacks on US interests, without giving evidence. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again defended the decision at a Washington news conference yesterday, saying attacks allegedly planned by Soleimani “were going to lead, potentially, to the death of many more Americans”.

Pompeo also held Soleimani responsible for a Dec 27 rocket attack in Iraq in which a US civilian contractor was killed. Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah received a phone call on Monday from Pompeo, KUNA said. They discussed the latest developments in the region, and affirmed the importance of de-escalation and dealing with these developments in a spirit of wisdom and self-restraint in order to achieve its security and stability, KUNA reported. – Agencies