BEIRUT — The leader of Lebanon's Iran-allied Hezbollah movement declared Sunday that retribution for the killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani should target the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and not U.S. citizens, saying that harming ordinary Americans would play into the hands of President Trump.
“It is the U.S. military that killed Haj Qasem, and they must pay the price,” Nasrallah added, using an honorific.
But American citizens should not be harmed, he said.
When talking about retribution, “we do not mean the American people,” he said. “There are many U.S. civilians in our region — engineers, businessmen, journalists. We will not touch them. Touching any civilian anywhere in the world will only serve Trump’s policy.”
“The true, just retribution for those who conducted this assassination is an institution, which is the U.S. military. We will launch a battle against those killers, those criminals.”
Hezbollah supporters crowded into the vast prayer hall where the ceremony was held punctuated his speech, delivered via a video link, with chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
Mohammad Jawad Dukmak, 20, drove up with his four friends from Nabatiyeh, a mainly Shiite town in southern Lebanon, to attend the commemoration. “America will pay, and this is definite,” Dukmak said.
“This journey does not end with anybody. Even if, God forbid, they assassinate Sayyid Ali Khamenei, we will not stop,” he said, referring to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “We are a school, we are not just a military camp. We are a school that graduates leaders and educated students.”
The funeral prayers came two days after a U.S. drone struck Soleimani’s vehicle on the road leading out of the Baghdad airport shortly after he had landed on a scheduled flight from Damascus, Syria. Also killed was militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who used a nom de guerre and was the deputy leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella organization in Iraq, and at least seven others.
The entire region has been bracing for Iran’s response to the killing, which targeted the country’s most important military commander and the symbol of its expansive influence across the region. Soleimani commanded a network of militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, of which Hezbollah is regarded as the most powerful.
Nasrallah was one of Soleimani’s closest associates, and his thinking often coincides with that of the Iranian leadership, which funds and arms the militia.
Nasrallah was careful, however, to avoid mentioning Lebanon as a potential site for retaliation in his speech. Rather, he said, “we are not tools to be directed by Iran. They did not ask anything of us and will not ask anything. It is up to us to decide our response.”
The bigger goal, he said, is to secure the removal of all U.S. troops from the region, and he focused on Iraq, where parliament voted Sunday on a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to end the foreign troop presence in the country.
Expelling U.S. troops from Iraq, a longtime goal of Soleimani, would be just and fitting retribution for his death, Nasrallah said, adding: “The blood of the martyrs should lead to Iraq’s second liberation from American occupation.”
Analysts say Hezbollah is in no mood to become embroiled in a wider conflict on Iran’s behalf at a time when Lebanon is wracked by anti-government protests that have pointedly included Hezbollah as one of the targets of popular wrath.
The group is on the verge of securing the formation of a new Lebanese government that will include a Hezbollah nominee as prime minister and will effectively be seen as run by Hezbollah, said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. That prize will be squandered if Lebanon becomes entangled in conflict.
“In Lebanon, the situation is so fragile that my sense is any reaction will be tempered,” Yahya said. “Hezbollah, as much as anyone else, really didn’t want to go down this route” of confrontation, she said. “The stakes are too high.”
U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read
Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.
What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.
Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.
How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.
What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.
Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.