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More than 100 killed in blasts at ceremony for slain Iranian general Soleimani

In MIDDLE EAST, World
January 03, 2024

Two explosions minutes apart Wednesday in Iran targeted a commemoration for slain general Qassem Soleimani, killing at least 103 people and wounding more than 140, according to Iran’s official news agency. The attack came on the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing in a US drone strike as the Middle East remains on edge over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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The incident took place near the grave of the head of foreign operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the Saheb al-Zaman mosque in the southern city of Kerman, state television said.

“The incident is a terrorist attack,” Rahman Jalali, the deputy governor of Kerman province where Soleimani is buried, told the television.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

While Israel has carried out attacks in Iran over its nuclear programme, it has conducted targeted assassinations, not mass-casualty bombings. Sunni extremist groups including the Islamic State (IS) group have conducted large-scale attacks in the past that killed civilians in Shiite-majority Iran.

The blasts stuck near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque in Kerman, Soleimani’s southern hometown where he is buried, as supporters gathered to mark the fourth anniversary of his death in a US drone strike just outside Baghdad airport.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed a “harsh response” for the attack, but he provided no details.

“The evil and criminal enemies of the Iranian nation once again created a disaster and martyred a large number of dear people in Kerman,” said Khamenei in a statement. “This disaster will have a harsh response, God willing,” he said.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to Iran‘s leadership after the attacks, condemning “terrorism in all its forms”. 

“The killing of peaceful people visiting the cemetery is shocking in its cruelty and cynicism,” Putin said in a letter to Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The European Union demanded that the perpetrators of the blasts be brought to justice. 

“The EU condemns in the strongest terms today’s bombing in the city of Kerman in Iran. The EU expresses its solidarity with the Iranian people. This act of terror has exacted a shocking toll of civilian deaths and injuries,” an EU foreign affairs spokesperson said in a statement.

“Our thoughts now are with the victims and their families. Perpetrators must be held accountable.”

Crowd screaming, fleeing scene of attack

Authorities said some people were injured while fleeing shortly after the blasts. Footage suggested that the second blast occurred some 15 minutes after the first. A delayed second explosion is often used by militants to target emergency personnel responding to the scene and inflict more casualties.

People could be heard screaming in state TV footage.

Iran has multiple foes who could be behind the assault, including exile groups, militant organizations and state actors. Iran has supported Hamas as well as the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s regional military activities and is hailed as a national icon among supporters of Iran’s theocracy. He also helped secure Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government after the 2011 Arab Spring protests against him turned into a civil, and later a regional, war that still rages today.

Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s popularity and mystique grew after US  officials called for his killing over his help arming militants with penetrating roadside bombs that killed and maimed US troops.

A decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognisable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but growing as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.

Ultimately, a drone strike launched by the Trump administration killed the general, part of escalating incidents that followed America’s 2018 unilateral withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Soleimani’s death has drawn large processions in the past. At his funeral in 2020, a stampede broke out and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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