March 1, 2024

At least 103 people have been killed and 170 wounded after two explosions rocked a ceremony that was being held to mark the 2020 assassination of Iran‘s top commander Qassem Soleimani in a US drone attack.

The first explosion was quickly followed by a second close to a cemetery in the southeastern city of Kerman where thousands had gathered to mark the four-year anniversary of Soleimani’s killing.

Harrowing video showed scores of bloodied victims lying on the floor as others stumbled away from the blast scene close to the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque where Soleimani is buried in what Iran has described as a ‘terrorist attack’.

Iran declared Thursday a day of mourning following the blasts for which no group has yet claimed responsibility. 

Video showed plumes of smoke rising up into the sky as thousands of people who had been walking towards the cemetery screamed in horror. The crowd were seen running away after the two explosions ripped through Kerman. 

Thousands had gathered to mark the four-year anniversary of the ruthless commander’s assassination when the explosions erupted near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque. 

The explosions came a day after an Israeli drone strike killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Lebanon’s capital Beirut amid fears war could soon spiral across the Middle East.

But there is no suggestion the attack was authored by Tel-Aviv. 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 Islamic State, have carried out large-scale attacks in the past that killed civilians in Shiite-majority Iran, though not in relatively peaceful Kerman. 

Iranian emergency services arrive at the site where two explosions in quick succession struck a crowd marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Guards general Qasem Soleimani, near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque in the southern Iranian city of Kerman on January 3, 2024

A view of the scene after explosions near Gen. Qassem Soleimani's tomb, in Kerman City, Iran on January 03, 2024

A view of the scene after explosions near Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s tomb, in Kerman City, Iran on January 03, 2024

Damaged cars are seen as people try to help victims after an explosion next to the tomb of Iran's Revolutionary Guards chief of foreign operations in the Saheb al-Zaman mosque in the southern city of Kerman, Iran 03 January 2024

Damaged cars are seen as people try to help victims after an explosion next to the tomb of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards chief of foreign operations in the Saheb al-Zaman mosque in the southern city of Kerman, Iran 03 January 2024

A group of men stand around the bodies of the victims killed in the two blasts in Kerman today

A group of men stand around the bodies of the victims killed in the two blasts in Kerman today

People run as smoke rises, amid local media reports of explosions during a ceremony held to mark the death of late Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, in Kerman, Iran January 3, 2024

People run as smoke rises, amid local media reports of explosions during a ceremony held to mark the death of late Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, in Kerman, Iran January 3, 2024

Video showed plumes of smoke rising up into the sky as thousands of people who had been walking towards the cemetery to mark Soleimani’s assassination screamed in horror

People are seen after an explosion in Kerman, Iran, on Wednesday

People are seen after an explosion in Kerman, Iran, on Wednesday

Thousands had gathered to mark the four-year anniversary of the ruthless commander's assassination when the explosions erupted near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque

Thousands had gathered to mark the four-year anniversary of the ruthless commander’s assassination when the explosions erupted near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque

The first explosion was quickly followed by a second close to a cemetery in the southeastern city of Kerman where thousands had gathered to mark the four-year anniversary of Soleimani's (file image) killing

The first explosion was quickly followed by a second close to a cemetery in the southeastern city of Kerman where thousands had gathered to mark the four-year anniversary of Soleimani’s (file image) killing

Babak Yektaparast, a spokesperson for Iran’s emergency services, earlier told state media that 73 people had been killed and 170 injured but the toll was quickly bumped up to 103, with the number of casualties expected to rise further. 

Mystery surrounds who is behind today’s blasts, but they came less than 24 hours after an Israeli drone strike killed Arouri in Beirut, Lebanon. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously vowed to cut ‘the head off the snake’ and launch a military attack against Iran after Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, which is backed by Tehran, fired rockets at Israel

Rahman Jalali, the deputy governor of Kerman province where Soleimani is buried, said today’s blasts were a ‘terrorist attack’ without elaborating on who could be behind them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Tehran, expressed his condolences to Iran’s leaders shortly after the bombings.

‘The killing of peaceful people visiting the cemetery is shocking in its cruelty and cynicism,’ Putin said in a letter to Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the blasts, but Iran Newspaper reported that two bags filled with explosives were detonated remotely in the middle of a crowd. 

Several people were also injured in a stampede as they tried to flee the carnage, with several ambulances rushing to the scene. 

But rescuers told how they were delayed in rushing the wounded to hospital due to the huge crowds blocking the roads. 

‘Our rapid response teams are evacuating the injured… But there are waves of crowds blocking roads,’ Reza Fallah, head of the Kerman province Red Crescent rescuers told state TV. 

Thousands had gathered in the city to pay their respects to Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike at Baghdad International Airport in neighbouring Iraq in 2020. 

Soleimani was responsible for shaping Iran’s foreign policy throughout the Middle East and was revered and loved in his homeland. 

However, to American officials, he represented a deadly foe during the Iraq War, one who helped arm militants with penetrating roadside bombs that killed and maimed US troops. 

The strike that killed Soleimani unfolded on January 3, 2020 close to Baghdad airport.

Soleimani had arrived at the airport on a plane from either Syria or Lebanon around 12.30am when he was met on the tarmac by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, then-deputy commander of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq.

Moments later, as their cars passed through a cargo area headed for an access road leading out of the airport, the convoy was struck by four missiles fired by an MQ-9 Reaper drone.

Both vehicles were instantly reduced to smouldering wrecks – killing Soleimani, Muhandis, and three others. 

An American airstrike on Baghdad airport killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's powerful Quds force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy-leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, on January 3, 2020, in Baghdad

An American airstrike on Baghdad airport killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s powerful Quds force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy-leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, on January 3, 2020, in Baghdad

Four precision missiles fired from a U.S. drone struck the two cars carrying Soleimani and his entourage, on Jan 3, 2020, in Baghdad

Four precision missiles fired from a U.S. drone struck the two cars carrying Soleimani and his entourage, on Jan 3, 2020, in Baghdad

But rescuers told how they were delayed in rushing the wounded to hospital due to the huge crowds blocking the roads

But rescuers told how they were delayed in rushing the wounded to hospital due to the huge crowds blocking the roads

People are seen after an explosion in Kerman, Iran, on Wednesday

People are seen after an explosion in Kerman, Iran, on Wednesday

Ambulances are seen rushing wounded victims from the blast site on Wednesday

Ambulances are seen rushing wounded victims from the blast site on Wednesday

Soleimani, who led the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was credited with helping to arm, train and lead armed groups across the region, including the Shiite militias in Iraq, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and fighters in Syria, the Palestinian territories and Yemen.

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

Last night, an Israeli drone strike on Hamas’ offices in Beirut killed four of the terror group’s members including Arouri, its deputy political leader. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had threatened to kill al-Arouri, who headed the organisation in the West Bank and helped to found the group’s armed wing, even before Hamas launched its bloody October 7 attack.

Israeli officials last vowed that all Hamas leaders ‘are doomed to death’, but declined to comment on whether their forces had carried out the Beirut attack.

Arouri, 57, was the first senior Hamas political leader to be assassinated since Israel launched a brutal air and ground offensive against the group almost three months ago on the heels of the ruthless October 7 attacks.

Arouri was one of the most influential in Hamas and was residing in Beirut's southern suburbs under the protection of Hezbollah until his death following an Israeli strike

Arouri was one of the most influential in Hamas and was residing in Beirut’s southern suburbs under the protection of Hezbollah until his death following an Israeli strike

Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah group, a powerful Hamas allypreviously vowed to strike back against any Israeli targeting of Palestinian officials in Lebanon, and said of last night’s attack: ‘This crime will never pass without response and punishment.’

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati also condemned the killing, declaring Israel ‘aims to draw Lebanon’ further into the war.

Hezbollah and the Israeli military have been exchanging fire almost daily over the Israeli-Lebanese border since Israel’s military campaign in Gaza began, but so far the Lebanese group has appeared reluctant to dramatically escalate the fighting. 

A significant response now could send the conflict spiralling into all-out war on Israel’s northern border.

And today, Israeli forces continued to pummel Lebanon with strikes in a bid to target Hezbollah militants, who are backed by Iran.

Who was Qasem Soleimani, Iranian general killed by US airstrike? 

Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in 2020, was one of the most popular figures in Iran and seen as a deadly adversary by America and its allies.

General Soleimani, who headed the external operations Quds Force for the Guards, had wielded his regional clout publicly since 2018 when it was revealed that he had direct involvement in top-level talks over the formation of Iraq’s government.

It was no surprise at the time for a man who was at the centre of power-broking in the region for two decades.

Where once he kept to the shadows, Soleimani had become an unlikely celebrity in Iran with a huge following on Instagram.

Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani (center) 'was personally the most popular regime figure in Iran' said one expert on Middle East affairs

Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani (center) ‘was personally the most popular regime figure in Iran’ said one expert on Middle East affairs

His profile rose suddenly when he was pushed forward as the public face of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian conflict from 2013, appearing in battlefield photos, documentaries – and even being featured in a music video and animated film.

In a rare interview aired on Iranian state television in October, he said he was in Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to oversee the conflict.

To his fans and enemies alike, Soleimani was the key architect of Iran’s regional influence, leading the fight against jihadist forces and extending Iran’s diplomatic heft in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

‘To Middle Eastern Shiites, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga rolled into one,’ wrote former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack in a profile for Time’s 100 most influential people in 2017.

‘To the West, he is… responsible for exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution, supporting terrorists, subverting pro-Western governments and waging Iran’s foreign wars,’ Pollack added.

With Iran roiled by protests and economic problems at home, and the US once again mounting pressure from the outside, some Iranians had even called for Soleimani to enter domestic politics.

As well as talks on forming a government, he was pivotal in pressuring Iraq’s Kurds to abandon their plans for independence after an ill-judged referendum in 2019.

Soleimani was key military decision-maker in Iran

His influence has deep roots, since Soleimani was already leading the Quds Force when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

‘My Iranian interlocutors on Afghanistan made clear that while they kept the foreign ministry informed, ultimately it was General Soleimani that would make the decisions,’ former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told the BBC in 2013.

His firm but quiet presence play perfectly to the Iranian penchant for dignified humility.

‘He sits over there on the other side of room, by himself, in a very quiet way. Doesn’t speak, doesn’t comment, just sits and listens. And so of course everyone is thinking only about him,’ a senior Iraqi official told the New Yorker for a long profile of Soleimani.

A survey published in 2018 by IranPoll and the University of Maryland — one of the few considered reliable by analysts — found Soleimani had a popularity rating of 83 percent, beating President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Western leaders saw him as central to Iran’s ties with militia groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.

Part of his appeal was the suggestion he might bridge Iran’s bitter social divides on issues such as its strict ‘hijab’ clothing rules.

‘If we constantly use terms such as ‘bad hijab’ and ‘good hijab’, reformist or conservative… then who is left?’ Soleimani said in a speech to mark World Mosque Day in 2017.

‘They are all people. Are all your children religious? Is everybody the same? No, but the father attracts all of them.’

-AFP