Downing of Ukraine airliner a bitter tragedy: Khamenei

But the incident should not be allowed to overshadow Soleimani’s martyrdom, says Iranian leader

January 17, 2020 10:30 pm | Updated January 18, 2020 12:30 am IST

Honouring a soldier: Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading Friday prayers in Tehran.

Honouring a soldier: Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading Friday prayers in Tehran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader said on Friday that demonstrations at home over its accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner were unrepresentative of the Iranian people and accused the country’s enemies of exploiting it for propaganda purposes.

Leading the main weekly Muslim prayers in Tehran for the first time since 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the January 8 downing was a “bitter” tragedy but should not be allowed to overshadow the “sacrifice” of one of Iran’s most storied commanders, assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

‘Enemies were happy’

His sermon came after a traumatic month for Iran in which the country had appeared on the brink of war with the United States before mistakenly shooting down the Ukrainian jet with the loss of all 176 people on board. “The plane crash was a bitter accident, it burned through our heart,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in an address punctuated by cries of “Death to America” from the congregation. “But some tried to... portray it in a way to forget the great martyrdom and sacrifice” of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the assassinated head of the foreign operations arm of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. Khamenei said Iran’s enemies had seized on the plane tragedy in a bid to undermine the Islamic republic.

“Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad... happy that they found something to question the Guards, the armed forces, the system,” he said. The air disaster triggered scattered protests in Tehran and other cities, but they appeared smaller than a nationwide wave of demonstrations prompted by a fuel price hike in November. At least 300 people died in a crackdown by security forces after those demonstrations, according to Amnesty International.

On Friday, anti-riot police staged a massive deployment in Tehran, an AFP correspondent said. Ayatollah Khamenei said the protesters were unrepresentative of the Iranian people as a whole, who had turned out in their hundreds of thousands for Soleimani’s funeral. Praising the slain general, Ayatollah Khamenei said his actions beyond Iran’s borders were in the service of the “security” of the nation.

11 U.S. soldiers injured

Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command said on Thursday that at least 11 American troops were injured in an Iranian attack on an Iraqi base where American soldiers were deployed, although the US military had previously maintained there were no casualties.

At the time of the attack, most of the 1,500 U.S. soldiers at the base had been tucked away in bunkers, after advance warning from superiors.

The strike caused significant material damage but no casualties, according to previous reports from the U.S. military.

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