Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed a “crushing” response after assailants sprayed a crowd with gunfire, shooting dead at least 29 people including women and children Saturday at a military parade near the Iraqi border.
The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group claimed responsibility for the rare assault in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, while Iranian officials blamed “a foreign regime” backed by the United States.
Behrad Ghasemi, a local journalist who witnessed the attack, said shots rang out for 10 to 15 minutes and that at least one of the assailants, armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, wore the uniform of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards force.
“First we thought it’s part of the parade, but after about 10 seconds we realised it was a terrorist attack as bodyguards (of officials) started shooting,” he told AFP.
“Everything went haywire and soldiers started running.”
“I saw a four-year old child get shot, and also a lady. The terrorists had no particular target and didn’t really seem to care as they shot anyone they could with rapid gunfire.”
After addressing a similar parade in Tehran to commemorate the start of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, Rouhani warned that “the response of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the smallest threat will be crushing”.
ISNA/AFP / MORTEZA JABERIAN
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the attack was carried out by “terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime”.
“Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks,” he wrote on his Twitter account.
Ahvaz lies in Khuzestan, a province bordering Iraq that has a large ethnic Arab community and has seen separatist violence in the past that Iran has blamed on its regional rivals.
– Women and children –
IS said via its propaganda mouthpiece Amaq that “Islamic State fighters attacked a gathering of Iranian forces” in Ahvaz.
SITE Intelligence Group which monitors jihadist websites reported that IS said the attack was in response to Iranian involvement in conflicts across the region.
State television gave a casualty toll of 29 dead and 57 wounded, while the official news agency IRNA said those killed included women and children who were spectators at the rally.
The Revolutionary Guards accused Shiite-dominated Iran’s Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia of funding the attackers.
ISNA/AFP / Alireza MOHAMMADI
Wounded soldiers receive treatment on the ground in front of the official viewing stand after gunmen attacked a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also blamed Iran’s pro-US rivals, citing “the conspiracy of regional governments that are American lackeys and who aim to create insecurity in our dear country”.
Armed forces spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi said three attackers were killed at the scene and the fourth died later of his injuries.
– Support from allies –
Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah condemned the “terrorist” attack, saying that “repulsive Satanic hands” were behind it.
“This operation was a continuation of the other forms of war the United States and its allies are waging, directly or indirectly, first and foremost the oppressive economic sanctions,” it said.
In a message of condolence to Russia’s close regional ally, President Vladimir Putin said he was “appalled by this bloody crime” which was a reminder of the “necessity of an uncompromising battle against terrorism”.
Syria, another ally, said it stood in “full sympathy and solidarity with the Islamic Republic of Iran”, while neighbouring Turkey expressed “great sorrow” at what it called “a heinous terrorist attack”.
The French foreign ministry condemned the attack and sent condolences to the families of the victims and to the Iranian people.
Khuzestan was a major battleground of the 1980s war with Iraq and the province saw unrest in 2005 and 2011, but has since been largely quiet.
AFP / AFP
Kurdish rebels frequently attack military patrols on the border further north, but attacks on regime targets in major cities are rare.
On June 7, 2017 in Tehran, 17 people were killed and dozens wounded in simultaneous attacks on the parliament and on the tomb of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — the first inside Iran claimed by IS.
In April, 26 alleged members of the Sunni extremist group went on trial in connection with the attacks.
– Rouhani defiant –
The attack in Ahvaz came as Rouhani and other dignitaries attended the main anniversary parade in Tehran.
afp/AFP / STRINGER
In a keynote speech, he vowed to boost Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, despite Western concerns that were cited by his US counterpart Donald Trump in May when he abandoned a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran.
“We will never decrease our defensive capabilities… we will increase them day by day,” Rouhani said.
“The fact that the missiles anger (the West) shows they are our most effective weapons.”
The United States reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran last month, and a new round of even harsher sanctions targeting Iran’s vital oil sector is set to go back into effect on November 5.
Washington has said it is ready to open talks on a new agreement to replace the July 2015 accord, but Tehran has repeatedly said it cannot negotiate under pressure from sanctions.
Rouhani leaves Sunday for New York to attend next week’s United Nations General Assembly along with Trump, but Iran has repeatedly ruled out any meeting.
ISNA/AFP / Shayan HAJI NAJAF