AHVAZ, Iran (AP) — Amid wails and vows of revenge, thousands of Iranians on Monday attended a mass funeral service for victims of a weekend attack targeting a military parade that killed at least 25 people.
The dead from Saturday's attack in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, blamed on Arab separatists, ranged from a disabled war hero to a 4-year-old boy. The assault killed members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, including conscripts, wounded over 60 others and further ratcheted up tensions across the Persian Gulf ahead of this week's United Nations General Assembly.
The father of 4-year-old victim Mohammad Taha lay atop his son's flag-draped coffin sobbing, a public display of grief near the Sarallah Mosque in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's oil-rich province of Khuzestan.
Women in long black chadors held back tears while rhythmically striking their chests, a traditional way of showing grief. Mourners also played drums, cymbals and horns, according to local customs.
Of the 25 killed, 12 were from Ahvaz and the rest from elsewhere in Khuzestan.
As crowds flowed down Ahvaz's streets, cries of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" rose from the mourners. While a traditional chant in the years since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, they have taken on a new meaning as Iranian officials have blamed the U.S. and its regional allies for backing the separatists, who carried out the assault while disguised in military uniforms.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the attack showed Iran has "a lot of enemies," according to remarks posted on his website, in which he linked the attackers to the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"Definitely, we will harshly punish the operatives" behind the terror attack, he added.
Speaking at the funeral, the Guard's acting commander, Gen. Hossein Salami, vowed revenge against the perpetrators and what he called the "triangle" of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.
"You are responsible for these actions; you will face the repercussions," the general said. "We warn all of those behind the story, we will take revenge."
In the U.S., Defense Secretary Jim Mattis noted to reporters that the Trump administration had condemned the attack. "It's ludicrous to allege that we might have had anything to do with it," he said.
Mattis also said he wasn't concerned by Iranian talk of revenge. "We've been very clear that they shouldn't take us on like that, and I'm hopeful that cooler, wiser heads will prevail," he said.
Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavai told the mourners that his agency had identified many suspects involved in the attack and "a majority of them were detained."
"We will punish the terrorists, one by one," he promised the crowd.
State TV reported late Monday that authorities have detained 22 suspects linked to the group behind the attack and confiscated ammunition and communication equipment. The semi-official Fars news agency reported that five militants took part in the assault, all of whom were killed. It said two of them were brothers.
Saturday's attack targeted one of many parades in Iran marking the start of the country's long 1980s war with Iraq, part of a commemoration known as "Sacred Defense Week." The attacks in Ahvaz sent women and children fleeing alongside the soldiers once marching in the parade.
Arab separatists in the region claimed the attack and Iranian officials have blamed them for the assault. The separatists accuse Iran's Persian-dominated government of discriminating against its ethnic Arab minority. Khuzestan province also has seen recent protests over Iran's nationwide drought, as well as economic protests.
President Hassan Rouhani has accused an unnamed U.S.-allied regional country of supporting the attackers. Iran's Foreign Ministry also summoned Western diplomats and an envoy from the UAE, accusing them of allegedly providing havens for the Arab separatists.
Rouhani's remarks could refer to Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Bahrain — close U.S. military allies that view Iran as a regional menace, in part because of its support for militant groups across the Middle East. Saudi-linked media immediately carried claims of responsibility by the separatists after the attack and have widely covered their previous attacks on oil pipelines.
The Islamic State group also claimed Saturday's attack, initially offering incorrect information about it and later publishing a video of three men it identified as the attackers. The men in the video did not resemble images of two dead attackers published by Iranian media in the aftermath of the attack. Iranian state media have not acknowledged the IS claims.
The attack comes as Iran's economy reels in the wake of the U.S. re-imposing sanctions lifted by Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers. While Iran still complies with the accord, President Donald Trump withdrew America over the deal in part due to Tehran's ballistic missile program, its "malign behavior" in the Mideast and its support of militant groups like Hezbollah.
Iran's national currency has gone from trading at 62,000 rials to one U.S. dollar to as much as 150,000. Economic protests and other demonstrations have spiked across Iran, putting new pressure on Rouhani's government.
At Monday's funeral, however, those attending rallied around the Iranian government and its soldiers. Cries and wails erupted at the sight of the casket of a local hero, 54-year-old Hossein Monjazi, a disabled war veteran and Revolutionary Guard member who had lost a leg and a hand in the Iraq-Iran war. A photo of his crumpled body out of his wheelchair after the attack shocked the country, as did the death of the four-year-old boy.
Mahmoud Falaki, a teacher attending the funerals, said the ceremony showed Iranians "are always ready to sacrifice ourselves for our country. The terrorists are a bunch of cowards."
Another Ahvaz resident, Ghaseem Farhani, said: "Just look at the crowd, with no fear, people are gathered here to see their soldiers and martyrs off to heaven."
Associated Press cameraman Mohsen Ganji reported this story in Ahvaz and AP writer Nasser Karimi reported from Tehran. AP writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.