KERMAN, Iran: More than 50 people were killed in a stampede on Tuesday (Jan 7) during a massive funeral procession in Iran for a top general assassinated in a US drone strike, Iranian media said.
The tragedy came as grieving crowds packed the hometown of Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, a hugely popular figure in the Islamic republic.
More than 50 people were killed and 212 people injured in the stampede in Kerman, semi-official news agency ISNA said, citing officials in the southeastern city.
Anxious Iranians gathered outside a city hospital to check the lists of victims or show doctors pictures of their missing relatives.
Inside, patient Ali Salaji, 28, recounted the crush as his mother tended to him.
"I could hardly breathe. I had a seizure, and my foot was crushed pretty bad under the weight of all that crowd," he told AFP.
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.
After the stampede, Iranian media stopped broadcasting live from the cemetery, with some outlets suggesting the burial might not take place before morning.
Soleimani, the head of the Guards' Quds Force foreign operations arm, was killed on Friday in a US strike near Baghdad international airport, an operation that shocked Iran.
"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.
The assassination of Soleimani set off an escalating war of words between Iran and the US.
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.
On Tuesday, he told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that America's interests in the region were in danger, Rouhani's office said.
The United States "cannot escape the consequences of this great crime," he told Macron in a telephone call, according to the Iranian presidency.
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 US$244 million (€200 million).
'BOILS THE BLOOD'
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 defence," 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," 56-year-old war veteran Hemmat Dehghan told AFP.
Another mourner said Soleimani's assassination "boils the blood of the Iranian people".
The assassination of the 62-year-old general heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile Middle East.
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.
US LETTER 'SIGNED'
The US said it mistakenly notified Baghdad on Monday night of an imminent troop pullout in a letter that sparked confusion.
"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".
Pentagon Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley then said the letter was an unsigned draft sent by mistake.
But on Tuesday evening Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said that he had receied signed versions of the letter.
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.
The European Union, whose foreign ministers will hold emergency talks on the crisis Friday, said it was in the interests of Iran and Iraq 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.
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.