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Iranian leader's tears a sign of respect for slain general

DUBAI – In a rare display of emotion from the typically reserved and measured supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cried openly Monday at the funeral of slain Gen. Qassem Soleimani, his most important military commander with whom he shared a deep bond.

“Oh Allah, they are in need of your mercy, and you are exalted above punishing your servants,” Khamenei said in prayer as he stood over a flag-draped casket with the remains of Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq on Friday.

Khamenei's voice cracked under the weight of the moment during a funeral procession unlike any in Iran's recent history.

Such public displays of intense grief are common among Shiite Muslims, who hold martyrs in the highest esteem. It also signals deep respect for the deceased.

The funeral showcased the depth of the bond Khamenei had with the slain general and gave insight into how Soleimani's death is being felt personally by the supreme leader. It could also impact how Khamenei responds to the United States.

Police said the throng numbered into the millions. Although there was no independent estimate, aerial footage and Associated Press journalists suggested a turnout of at least a million.

The U.S. killed Soleimani, other Revolutionary Guard members and a senior Iraqi militia leader in a stunning attack on their convoy, shortly after Soleimani had arrived at Baghdad's international airport. The killing, ordered by President Donald Trump, has dramatically heightened tensions as senior Iranian figures vow to strike U.S. military targets in response.

To many across the Middle East, Soleimani was a dangerous figure whose armed militias killed thousands of Sunni Muslims in Syria and threatened regional security. To the U.S., he was the man responsible for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq and countless attacks on Iraqis fighting alongside American forces.

In Iran, Soleimani was lionized as a figure who embodied Iran's lethal reach in the face of crushing U.S. pressure. He was a powerful commander in charge of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, overseeing Iran's proxy militias abroad, ranging from Hezbollah in Lebanon to armed factions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In Iraq, that meant directing the country's mostly Shiite paramilitaries, including in the fight alongside the U.S. against Sunni extremists like the Islamic State group.

To Iran's supreme leader, Soleimani was a loyal aide who conferred with him often and cemented Tehran’s footprint far beyond the country’s borders, helping to preserve and advance the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the Shiite leadership to power.

Their relationship was so close that Khamenei was photographed more than once embracing Soleimani in ways that are customary in Iran for fathers and their beloved sons.

In one such photo from 2018, Khamenei, seated on an elevated platform, leans down and kisses Soleimani's forehead. In another image from 2017, Khamenei is seen kissing Soleimani's cheek during Ashoura, a religious day of mourning among Shiites.

Unlike other military commanders in the Revolutionary Guard Corps., the 62-year-old general answered only to the 80-year-old Khamenei.

Khamenei so revered him that he awarded the general Iran's highest military order in March. Iran's Tasnim News Agency reported that Soleimani is the only Iranian military official to receive the Order of Zulfaqar since the revolution.

When pinning the medal on Soleimani, the Iranian leader said he hoped God would reward the general and help him live a blissful life that ends with martyrdom.

“Of course, not any time soon,” Khamenei said, adding that the “Islamic Republic needs him for years to come.”

To Soleimani, Khamenei was a venerated spiritual figure whom he referred to as his “dear and honorable leader.” In 2015, Soleimani was quoted saying: “I ask God to sacrifice my life for you.”

They were so close that Iranian media described the slain general as Khamenei’s own Malik al-Ashtar, a reference to the most loyal companions of the first Shiite leader, Imam Ali.

And in death, Soleimani has received what no man before him has in modern Iran. His funeral processions have been spread over several days and cities, marking the first time Iran has ever honored a single man with such ceremonies. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such an honor after his death in 1989.

Khamenei vowed that the Quds Force's strategy would be unchanged and he quickly named a successor to Soleimani, but the slain general's standing and relationship with Khamenei is not as easy to replace.

That's in part because it extended beyond the war room. Soleimani was also close with Khamenei's children and had been photographed kissing one of the sons on the forehead.

In a deeply personal and symbolically weighty gesture, Khamenei made a rare visit to Soleimani's home the day he was killed to offer condolences to his grieving widow and grown children.

Rather than calling him by his last name as is customary, Khamenei referred to him as Hajj Qassem — another indication of how close the two were.

That same day, Khamenei declared three days of mourning across the country and vowed “harsh retaliation."

The loss of Soleimani “is bitter," Khamenei said in statements carried on Twitter and in Iranian media Monday.

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Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed.