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Iran Mourns Slain Gen. Qassem Soleimani, And Vows Revenge


Hey, U.S. You started it. We will end it. Those words were printed on signs carried through Tehran today as the casket of an Iranian general made its way through the streets.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

CORNISH: Hundreds of thousands of mourners came for the funeral of General Qassem Soleimani.


CORNISH: People wept. They beat their chests. Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq last week. Iran is vowing hard revenge, and President Trump is vowing destruction inside Iran if its forces target Americans. Now, our co-host Mary Louise Kelly is one of the few American journalists on the ground inside Iran today. She joins us now on the line from Tehran.

Mary Louise, can you tell us a little bit more about what this was like? I mean, we're talking about people here openly weeping in the streets.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: We are, and we're talking about endless, enormous, just wall-to-wall masses of people in the streets weeping - not just men, but women, children. There were babies in strollers. The streets were just packed - all of the women that we saw, or most of the women, in the traditional head-to-toe black mourning garb, many people carrying photos of Soleimani, many people carrying banners, carrying flags.

One flag that we saw all over was this bright crimson flag with the words hard revenge written down it. One woman had taken it and draped it over her black headscarf, so she moved down the street, this crimson flag with - the revenge word is rippling behind her. And, you know, we don't know what form that revenge will take, what exactly Iran may choose to do to retaliate. We do know at the funeral today, Soleimani's daughter Zeinab spoke. I want to let you hear just a little bit of how she sounded.


ZEINAB SOLEIMANI: (Speaking non-English language).

KELLY: So in her comments, she went on to address President Trump directly. She said, Mr. Trump, you martyred my father, but that will bring Iran and Iraq closer together in friendship. She referenced the move by the Iraqi parliament over the weekend to call for the exit of the U.S. military and U.S. forces from Iraq. And she said that is the beginning, and then she directly threatened attacks on U.S. targets in the Middle East. So that was the type thing we were hearing not just from people presiding over the funeral, but ordinary Iranians who were moving around in the streets with us.

CORNISH: What was it like trying to talk to people given this atmosphere?

KELLY: Yeah, it was interesting. We were being very careful because it was obviously an emotionally charged event, and we were Americans in this sea of people who, at some moments throughout the proceedings, had their fists in the air and were chanting, death to America. That said, a lot of people were willing to stop. They wanted to tell us what was on their minds. They wanted Americans to know what Iranians think.

There was one woman who will stick with me. Her name was Azam Ayoubian. She told me she runs a travel agency. She said she doesn't usually come to marches, demonstrations. That's not her thing. But she said she is furious at President Trump. She told me he is, and I'm quoting, a crazy man.

AZAM AYOUBIAN: I want that our government give him a big and hard response.

KELLY: You want the government of Iran to give Trump a big and hard response.

AYOUBIAN: Yes, yes, yes, yes, of course.

KELLY: I don't know if you can hear it there. She was crying, Audie, just sobbing. And she told me she thinks that response should come in the form of a military attack.

CORNISH: You know, for his part, President Trump has said that the general was involved in terrorist activities, saying he was responsible for killing or wounding thousands of U.S. troops over the years. Trump has also claimed that Soleimani was hated and feared in Iran. Can you talk about what you actually encountered, though? Was everyone you talked to so angry at the United States?

KELLY: Yeah, it's a good question. We did not hear a lot of mixed emotions, and perhaps that is predictable. We were at a funeral. Presumably, people who have more moderate opinions about this found a way to stay home today. But some people had nuanced views. There was another man we spoke to who was 34 years old. This is an insurance agent. His name was Ali Ahmadi. He was there with his really sweet little 4-year-old daughter. They were holding hands. And he told me Iran is looking for peace. They don't want a war, but...

ALI AHMADI: (Speaking non-English language).

KELLY: He's saying there, Audie, if it goes to a place where we have a war, then we will all stand up. I am young, he said. I can stand. I can go to war. He said, we are all Soleimanis now.

CORNISH: What happens next? What are you going to be watching for the - in the next few days in Iran?

KELLY: So Soleimani will be buried in his hometown tomorrow, which means all eyes, again, will be on Iran's next move. Again, we don't know what that will be. We have already seen Iran move to suspend the remaining limits under the 2015 nuclear deal. Now, this is not - I should be careful. This is not a total collapse of that deal, but it does mean they are moving farther and farther in that direction, and things don't look good for the future of that deal.

CORNISH: That's our co-host Mary Louise Kelly reporting from Tehran this week, one of just a few American journalists on the ground there.

Mary Louise, thank you.

KELLY: You are welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.