Mourners carry the coffins of Iran's top general Qassem Soleimani during their funeral in Karbala, Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. Iran has vowed "harsh retaliation" for the U.S. airstrike near Baghdad's airport that killed Tehran's top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) Image Credit: AP

Washington:  President Donald Trump said on Saturday the United States has targeted 52 Iranian sites that it would strike if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets in response to a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.

Showing no signs of seeking to reduce tensions raised by the strike on Friday that he ordered, the U.S. president issued a stern threat to Iran on Twitter.

Trump wrote in a series of tweets that Iran "is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets" to avenge Soleimani's death.

Trump said the United States has "targeted 52 Iranian sites" and that some were "at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD." "The USA wants no more threats!"

Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran after being seized at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Asked about Trump's tweets during an interview with Fox News, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said "the president is trying to make it clear to the Iranians that this is a very bad path for them to go down."

O'Brien added: "The Iranians should be very careful. ... We've said we consider the matter resolved -- if they decide to move forward against the United States there will be severe consequences as the president pointed out." Trump's suggestion that the United States could strike targets of importance to Iranian culture raised eyebrows.

Soleimani's body arrives in Iran

The body of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani arrived Sunday in Iran to throngs of mourners after the U.S. drone strike killed the commander.

General Soleimani, headed the external operations Quds Force for the Guards.

The Quds Force
The Quds Force is the foreign operations unit of the IRGC, and is led by Brigadier General Qassem Sulaimani, who has emerged as one of the most powerful figures inside Iran. It was established during the Iran–Iraq War (1980-1988). To this day, its biggest undertaking is helping establish Hezbollah as a formidable fighting force in Lebanon, following the 1982 invasion by the Israeli regime. The force has been Iran’s primary military actor in neighbouring states, particularly Syria, where it helped prop up the regime of Bashar Al Assad, and Iraq, where it supports a coalition of powerful Shiite militias collectively known as Hashd Al Shaabi. It also backs Al Houthis in Yemen.

In 2007, the US Treasury designated the Quds Force as a terror organisation.

After thousands in Baghdad on Saturday mourned Soleimani and others killed in the strike, authorities flew the general's body to the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. An honor guard stood by early Sunday as mourners carried the flag-draped coffins of Soleimani and other Guard members off the tarmac.

Officials brought Soleimani's body to Ahvaz, a city that was a focus of fighting during the bloody, 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran in which the general slowly grew to prominence. After that war, Soleimani joined the Guard's newly formed Quds, or Jersualem, Force, an expeditionary force that works with Iranian proxy forces in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Mourners carry the coffins of Iran's top general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, during their funeral in Karbala, Ira Image Credit: AP

Authorities also plan to take Soleimani's body to Mashhad later Sunday, as well as Tehran and Qom on Monday for public mourning processions, then onto his hometown of Kerman for burial Tuesday.

Soleimani was the architect of Iran's regional policy of mobilizing militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, including in the war against the Islamic State group. He was also blamed for attacks on U.S. troops and American allies going back decades.

The U.S. strike on Soleimani's convoy at Baghdad airport also killed Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, and it raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn both commanders.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed "forceful revenge" as the country mourned the death of Soleimani and calls have accelerated to eject the United States from Iraq. Across the region, fears are rising that the shadow war that had been building between the United States and Iran could suddenly escalate into a wide-ranging conflict.

Soleimani, 62, spent much of his life building Iran's network of ties with militant groups across the Middle East, including in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Iraqi protested hits a poster of Soleimani back in November Image Credit: AP

Protesters in Iraq marched in the streets in October and Novemeber, demanding an end to corruption and calling for the ouster of the prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. In particular, they denounced the outsize influence of their neighbor Iran in Iraqi politics, burning Iranian flags and attacking an Iranian consulate.

The extent of that network added to the uncertainty about how Iran might respond to his killing. If it chose to, Tehran could do so by relying on allied forces in any of those places to target American troops, or allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or other countries in the Arabian Gulf.

"Technically, Iran could attack U.S. bases in Syria or in Iraq, but that would drive an even greater retaliation from the United States that I don't think even Iran would wish to happen," said Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a London-based research institute.

"I may be in the minority here, but I think with this new development, despite Iran's outlandish statements, ultimately Iran has been pushed into a corner," she added.

Rocket fire and threats unsettle Iraq

The day of mourning in the Iraqi capital ended Saturday evening with a series of rockets that were launched and fell inside or near the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the U.S. Embassy.

An Iranian commander quoted by the Tasnim News Agency on Saturday suggested that dozens of U.S. facilities and military assets in the Middle East were at risk, along with Israel, a key U.S. ally.

"Thirty-five vital American positions in the region are within the reach of the Islamic Republic, and Tel Aviv," the commander, Brig. Gen. Gholamali Abuhamzeh, was quoted as saying. "The Strait of Hormuz is a vital thoroughfare for the West, and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross the Strait of Hormuz, the Sea of Oman and the Gulf," he added.

Iranians burn US and Israeli flags during an anti-US protest over the killings during a US air stike of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in the capital Tehran Image Credit: AFP

Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, warned members of Iraqi security forces to keep more than half a mile from U.S. military bases, beginning Sunday evening. The militia, which led a siege of the U.S. Embassy before Soleimani's killing, did not say why it issued the warning.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State said that "we have increased security and defensive measures at the Iraqi bases that host anti-ISIS coalition troops. Our command places protection of U.S. forces, as well as our allies and security partners in the coalition, as the top priority; we remain vigilant and resolute."

'Trump ordered the killing'

US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani "in a decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad," the Pentagon said.

"General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more," the Department of Defense said.

Following Soleimani's death, Trump tweeted an image of the US flag without any further explanation.

'Soleimani should have been taken out many years ago'

Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has killed many Americans and should have been killed years ago, Trump said.

“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more...but got caught!,” he tweeted.