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Iran begins burying late president, foreign minister and others killed in helicopter crash

May 23, 2024  By Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press


Mourners surround a truck carrying the flag-draped coffins of the President Ebrahim Raisi, and his companions who were killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, during their funeral ceremony in the city of Mashhad, Iran, Thursday, May 23, 2024. Iran on Thursday prepared to inter its late president at the holiest site for Shiite Muslims in the Islamic Republic, a final sign of respect for a protégé of Iran's supreme leader killed in a helicopter crash earlier this week. (Mohammad Hasan Salavati, Shahraranews via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran on Thursday prepared to inter its late president at the holiest site for Shiite Muslims in the Islamic Republic, a final sign of respect for a protégé of Iran’s supreme leader killed in a helicopter crash earlier this week.

President Ebrahim Raisi’s burial at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad caps days of processionals through much of Iran, seeking to bolster the country’s theocracy after the crash that killed him, the country’s foreign minister and six others.

Hundreds of thousands of people crowded into Mashhad, about 750 kilometers (470 miles) east of Iran’s capital, Tehran, many in black and beating their chests and heads in a sign of mourning common in Shiite ceremonies. A truck carried his casket down the street, with mourners reaching out to touch it and tossing scarves and other items against it for a blessing.

However, the days of services have not drawn the same crowds as those who gathered for services for Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020, slain by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

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It’s a potential sign of the public’s feelings about Raisi’s presidency during which the government harshly cracked down on all dissent during protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, detained for allegedly not wearing her mandatory headscarf to authorities’ liking.

That crackdown, as well as Iran’s struggling economy, have gone unmentioned in the hours of coverage provided by state television and in newspapers. Never discussed was Raisi’s involved in the mass execution of an estimated 5,000 dissidents at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Nor has there been any information about the cause of the crash of the aging Bell helicopter carrying him and others through a foggy, mountainous region.

Prosecutors have warned people against showing any public signs of celebrating Raisi’s death and a heavy security force presence has been seen in Tehran since the crash.

Thursday morning, thousands in black gathered along a main boulevard in the city of Birjand, where Raisi once served as its member on the Assembly of Experts in Iran’s South Khorasan province along the Afghan border.

Hours later, Raisi’s casket arrived in Mashhad. He will be buried at the Imam Reza Shrine, where Shiite Islam’s 8th imam is buried. The region long has been associated with Shiite pilgrimage. A hadith, an Islamic story recounting an event in the Prophet Muhammad’s life, says anyone with sorrow or sin will be relieved through visiting there.

In 2016, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi to run the Imam Reza charity foundation, which manages a vast conglomerate of businesses and endowments in Iran, as well as oversees the shrine. It is one of many bonyads, or charitable foundations, fueled by donations or assets seized after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

These foundations offer no public accounting of their spending and answer only to Iran’s supreme leader. The Imam Reza charity, known as “Astan-e Quds-e Razavi” in Farsi, is believed to be one of the biggest in the country. Analysts estimate its worth at tens of billions of dollars as it owns almost half the land in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city.

Raisi will be the first top politician in the country to be buried at the shrine, which represents a major honor for the cleric.

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.

Iran has 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.

Acting President Mohammad Mokhber, a relatively unknown first vice president until Sunday’s crash, has stepped into his role and even attended a meeting between Khamenei and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Wednesday. State media circulated photos Thursday showing a meeting between Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard chief and the head of its expeditionary Quds Force and representatives from Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. That’s another sign of Iran’s government’s commitment to those militias it arms against its rivals, Israel and the United States.

Meanwhile, former Foreign Ministers Mohammed Javad Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi and other dignitaries paid respects to Amirabdollahian at Iran’s Foreign Ministry, where his casket was put on display. His body later was interred in Shahr-e Rey just outside of Tehran at the Abdol Azim shrine, another final resting place for those famed in Persian history.

“Give Soleimani our greetings,” a religious singer said as Amirabdollahian’s body was placed inside its final resting place, referring to the slain general.

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Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2023

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