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Iran Supreme Leader Leads Funerals     05/22 06:15

   Iran's supreme leader prayed Wednesday over the coffins of the country's 
late president, foreign minister and other officials who were killed in a 
helicopter crash earlier this week. Later, hundreds of thousands of people 
followed a procession honoring the dead down Tehran's main boulevard.

   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Iran's supreme leader prayed Wednesday 
over the coffins of the country's late president, foreign minister and other 
officials who were killed in a helicopter crash earlier this week. Later, 
hundreds of thousands of people followed a procession honoring the dead down 
Tehran's main boulevard.

   Iran's Shiite theocracy views mass demonstrations as crucial evidence of its 
legitimacy and the people's support.

   Still, Wednesday's funeral service for President Ebrahim Raisi and others 
saw a turnout that onlookers described as noticeably lower than the 2020 
procession honoring Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani, who was 
killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

   Many of the participants said they came to Tehran for the ceremony from 
other cities and towns across the Islamic Republic, an indication of how those 
in Iran's capital viewed Raisi, who won the presidency in a record low turnout 
and later oversaw repeated crackdowns on all dissent -- including in the wake 
of the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini that sparked street protests over Iran's 
mandatory hijab, or headscarf.

   Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who openly wept for Soleimani, also 
remained composed while reciting the standard prayer for the dead.

   "Oh Allah, we didn't see anything but good from him," Khamenei said in 
Arabic, the language of Islam's holy book, the Quran. He soon left and the 
crowd inside rushed to the front, reaching out to touch the coffins. Iran's 
acting president, Mohammad Mokhber, stood nearby and openly cried.

   The death of Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and six others 
in the crash on Sunday comes at a politically sensitive moment for Iran, both 
at home and abroad.

   Raisi, who was 63, had been discussed as a possible successor to Iran's 
supreme leader, the 85-year-old Khamenei. None of Iran's living past presidents 
-- other than Khamenei, who was president from 1981 until 1989 -- could be seen 
in state television footage of Wednesday's prayers. The authorities gave no 
explanation for their apparent absence.

   Following the deadly helicopter crash, Iran set June 28 as the next 
presidential election. For now, there's no clear favorite for the position 
among Iran's political elite -- particularly no one who is a Shiite cleric, 
like Raisi.

   During Raisi's term in office, Iran launched an unprecedented attack on 
Israel last month as its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip rages on. Iran has 
supported Hamas throughout the war and provided weaponry to the militants.

   Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh attended the prayers Wednesday morning, just two 
days after the International Criminal Court's prosecutor said he'd seek an 
arrest warrant for him and others over the Oct. 7 attack that sparked the 
latest Israel-Hamas war. In the unprecedented assault on southern Israel, 
Hamas-led militants killed 1,200 people and seized 250 hostage.

   The ICC prosecutor is also seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime 
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for their conduct 
in the war, which has seen more than 35,000 Palestinians killed in the Gaza 
Strip and also hundreds in the West Bank.

   Haniyeh recounted meeting Raisi earlier this year in Tehran during Ramadan, 
the holy Muslim fasting month, and heard the president say the Palestinian 
issue remains the key one for the Muslim world. He also described Raisi calling 
the Oct. 7 attack an "earthquake in the heart of the Zionist entity."

   Haniyeh's presence at the funeral likely signaled Khamenei intends to 
continue his policy of arming militant groups in the wider Mideast -- including 
Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels -- as a way to pressure 
its adversaries like Israel and the United States.

   Mourners at the ceremony chanted: "Death to Israel!"

   Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and a delegation from the Taliban 
of Afghanistan, including their Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi are expected 
to attend services in Tehran on Wednesday afternoon. Iraq's Prime Minister 
Mohammed Shia al-Sudani also flew in for the ceremony, along with Armenian 
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

   Even Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Tehran, despite 
diplomatic relations between the countries being severed after the 1979 Islamic 
Revolution. Egypt and Iran have recently discussed reestablishing ties.

   A single black turban was placed on top of Raisi's casket during the morning 
service, which signifies he was considered a direct descendent of Islam's 
Prophet Muhammad. People then carried the coffins out on their shoulders as 
chants of "Death to America!" erupted outside. The coffins were loaded onto a 
semitruck trailer for a procession through downtown Tehran to Azadi, or 
"Freedom," Square.

   People openly wept and beat their chests, a common sign of grief in the 
Shiite culture. They tossed scarves and other possessions up to the semitruck 
driving the caskets through Tehran, with coffin attendants brushing the items 
against the caskets in a gesture of blessing.

   One man said he and his friends took a nearly seven-hour bus trip to attend 
the procession. Many expressed their sympathies for the dead, including Raisi.

   "He was our president, the others were pilots and a minister, how can I be 
indifferent about their loss?" asked Sima Rahmani, a 27-year-old Tehran woman 
wearing a loose headscarf despite the risk of detention by police.

   Prosecutors have warned people against showing any public signs of 
celebrating Raisi's death and a heavy security force presence has been seen on 
the streets of Tehran since the crash. Many shops and stores noticeably 
remained open in Tehran during the ceremony, while some took off early for a 
long weekend.

   "I did not vote for Raisi in 2021 election, but he was the president of all 
people," said Morteza Nemati, a 28-year-old physics student at Tehran Azad 
University. "My presence is a way of paying tribute to him."

   Meanwhile, an Iranian official offered a new accounting of Sunday's crash, 
further fueling the theory that bad weather had led to it. Gholamhossein 
Esmaili, who traveled in one of the two other helicopters in Raisi's entourage, 
told state TV that weather had been fine when the aircraft took off. But 
Raisi's helicopter disappeared into heavy clouds and the others couldn't reach 
the aircraft by radio.

   Neither Amirabdollahian nor a bodyguard on board responded to calls. But 
Friday prayer leader from the city of Tabriz, Mohammad Ali Ale-Hashem, who was 
also on board, somehow answered two mobile phone calls, saying he was hurt, 
Esmaili said.

   It wasn't clear why Iran could not at that point track the phone signal.

   "The conditions of the bodies found showed that they (died) immediately 
after the incident," Esmaili said. "But Ayatollah Ale-Hashem (died) a few hours 
after the incident. He was alive for a short period."

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