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Stampede Kills Dozens Of Mourners At Iranian Commander's Burial

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Massive crowds are seen mourning General Qasem Soleimani in Kerman on January 7.

Fifty-six people have been killed and more than 200 injured in a stampede as Iranians attended the funeral procession of a top Iranian general slain in a U.S. air strike, state media report.

The deaths in Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General Qasem Soleimani's hometown of Kerman led to the January 7 ceremony being delayed.

The cause of the stampede was not immediately clear.

The powerful commander's burial went ahead in the early evening in the cemetery's "martyrs section," the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported, the last in a series of funeral events that have brought hundreds of thousands of mourners on to the streets in Iran.

The January 3 assassination in Baghdad of the 62-year-old major general who helped orchestrate Tehran’s overseas clandestine and military operations has carried already tense U.S.-Iranian relations to uncharted territory, with vows of revenge and retaliation emanating from both sides.

Speaking from the White House Oval Office, President Donald Trump defended his order to kill Soleimani, saying the Iranian was planning a "very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people."

"He was a monster. And he's no longer a monster. He's dead," Trump said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that Washington was seeking a diplomatic solution with Iran but that Tehran must de-escalate tensions.

However, Esper said that the United States should expect Iran to retaliate for the attack on Soleimani "in some way, shape, or form."

"We're prepared for any contingency. And then we will respond appropriately to whatever they do," he warned.

Domestic critics of Trump's decision to kill the Iranian commander have said the move has brought the United States closer to a potentially devastating war with Iran, while Canada and some U.S. allies in Europe have begun moving troops at least temporarily out of Iraq.

NATO said it had "temporarily suspended our training on the ground" and was taking "all precautions necessary to protect our people."

This includes the "temporary re-positioning of some personnel to different locations both inside and outside of Iraq," the alliance added.

The Iraqi parliament has demanded the expulsion of foreign forces from Iraq in response to the drone attack that killed Soleimani, but Trump said that a U.S. troop withdrawal at this stage would be the "worst thing" for the country.

"At some point we want to get out, but this isn't the right point," he said.

There are roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.​

Stampede Aftermath

Videos posted online showed victims of the stampede in Kerman lying lifeless on a road while survivors shout and try to help the injured.

Thousands of black-clad mourners had gathered earlier in the central square of Kerman carrying posters bearing the image of Soleimani.

At the start of the funeral procession, the IRGC’s top commander Hossein Salami threatened to "set ablaze'" unspecified locations supported by the United States over Soleimani's killing.

"We will take revenge. We will set ablaze a place they like, and they well know where it is," Salami said, drawing the cries of "Death to Israel."

On January 6, crowds filled the streets of the capital, Tehran, to mourn Soleimani in a funeral procession during which Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wept over the slain commander’s casket.

Soleimani Mourned As Tehran, Washington Trade Threats
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Washington blames Soleimani for the killing of American troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before his death.

Soleimani also led forces in Syria backing President Bashar al-Assad in a long war, and he also served as the point man for Iranian proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

During a press briefing, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected suggestions Soleimani was on a "diplomatic" mission when he was assassinated.

"Is there any history that would indicate that it was remotely possible that this kind gentleman, this diplomat of great order -- Qasem Soleimani -- had traveled to Baghdad for the idea of conducting a peace mission?" Pompeo said during a press briefing.

"We know that wasn't true,” he added, responding to remarks by Iranian officials that the slain general was attempting to conduct peace talks in Iraq.

The state secretary also accused the Iranian government of "actively working to undermine" the peace process in Afghanistan by "continuing its long global effort to support militant groups there."

Iran has "relationships" with the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, Pompeo told reporters.​

Diplomatic Maneuvering

Amid heightened regional tension and diplomatic maneuvering, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit on Orthodox Christmas Day on January 7 to Syria's capital, Damascus, where he met with Assad and held consultations with Russian military officials. Assad is closely aligned with Iran.

Earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the United States had refused to issue a visa that would have allowed him to attend a UN Security Council meeting on January 9 in New York.

In response to a question during his news briefing, Pompeo said the United States does not comment on individual visa maters.

"We will always comply with our obligations under the UN requirements, the headquarters agreement, and we will do so in this particular instance and more broadly,” he added.

Iran-U.S. Tensions: Calls For Revenge And Restraint
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A U.S. official told AP that the application could not be processed in time and it was not immediately clear if the visa request had been formally denied.

Separately, Reuters reported that U.S. administration officials would brief congressional and Intelligence Committee leaders on the Iran situation later on January 7 and then brief the full House of Representatives the next day.

Democrats have bitterly complained that Trump has kept them out of the process and that he did not properly consult or notify Congress as required by U.S. law.

Iran's parliament, meanwhile, passed a piece of legislation labeling the U.S. military's command at the Pentagon in Washington and those acting on its behalf "terrorists," subject to Iranian sanctions. The measure appears to mirror a decision by Trump in April to declare the IRGC a “terrorist organization.”

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
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