Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wept while leading mourners in prayer for the funeral on Monday of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani, whose death in a U.S. drone strike has caused a huge outpouring of national grief.
Iranians poured on to the streets of the capital Tehran to bid farewell to the commander of the Quds Force, the unit in charge of foreign operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
State media said they numbered in the millions. The scale of the crowds, shown on television clogging major streets, was the biggest since the 1989 funeral for the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution that set Iran on its political collision course with Washington.
The supreme leader’s voice cracked with emotion as he said prayers, forcing him to pause.
Crowds chanted “Death to America”. One poster held by a mourner read: “It is our right to seek a harsh revenge,” echoing comments by Iranian military and political leaders.
Many Iranians considered Soleimani, a decorated veteran of the eight-year war with Iraq, a national hero, particularly for mobilizing Shi’ite Muslim groups in neighboring Iraq to help crush the militant Sunni forces of Islamic State.
The death of the general, widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Khamenei, has prompted a rare public display of unity at home after deadly anti-government protests in November and before parliamentary elections in February.
It has also drawn some allies abroad closer to Iran.
“The martyrdom of Soleimani is for sure a turning point for the establishment, at home and abroad. His death, at least for now, has united Iran,” a former senior pro-reform Iranian official told Reuters.
The coffins of Soleimani and the Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed in Friday’s attack, were draped in their national flags and passed from hand to hand across the heads of mourners in central Tehran.