Four gunmen dressed in fatigues opened fire at a military parade in southwestern Iran, killing at least 29 people including women and children.
The brazen attack on Saturday in the city of Ahvaz came as the country marked the anniversary of the start of its 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and prompted President Hassan Rouhani to warn of a “crushing response”.
Those killed included members of the elite Revolutionary Guards and women and children who had come to watch the parade, the Iranian state-run IRNA news agency said. Another 70 people were wounded.
Three of the attackers died at the scene while a fourth was arrested and later succumbed to his wounds, armed forces spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi said.
“Of the four terrorists, three were sent to hell at the scene, while the fourth who had been wounded and arrested went to hell moments ago due to his severe wounds,” Shekarchi told state television.
Khuzestan province’s deputy governor Ali-Hossein Hosseinzadeh told the semi-official ISNA news agency “eight to nine” troops were among those killed, as well as a journalist.
Gunfire sprayed into a crowd of marching soldiers, bystanders, and government officials watching from a nearby riser. A video distributed to Iranian media showed soldiers crawling as gunfire blazed towards them. One picked up a gun and scrambled to his feet as women and children fled for their lives.
“We suddenly realised that some armed people wearing fake military outfits started attacking the comrades from behind [the stage] and then opened fire on women and children,” an unidentified soldier said.
“They were just aimlessly shooting around and did not have a specific target.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the attack was linked to the United States‘ “allies in the region”.
“This crime is a continuation of the plots of the regional states that are puppets of the United States, and their goal is to create insecurity in our dear country,” Khamenei said in a statement.
He did not name the states, but US allies in the region include Iran’s regional rival Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
On Twitter, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also pointed a finger at a “foreign regime” without elaborating.
Terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz. Children and journos among casualties. Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks. Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives. pic.twitter.com/WG1J1wgVD9
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 22, 2018
Mostafa Koshcheshm, a Tehran-based political commentator and journalist, told Al Jazeera that Revolutionary Guards officials were blaming the Ahwazi separatist movement, which has been “nurtured, supported, and trained by Saudi Arabia”.
“It’s been operating for the past several years, they are looking to cut off and separate Iran’s energy-rich province of Khuzestan from Iran, which is exactly what Saddam Hussein wanted to do,” said Koshcheshm.
“They call themselves Arab nationalists but we know they have very intimate ties to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq,” he said referring to an Iranian exiled dissident group accused of killing thousands of Iranian civilians and officials.
Iran’s English language news outlet, Press TV, published a video apparently showing the moment the attack started.
— Press TV (@PressTV) September 22, 2018
State media described the assailants as “takfiri gunmen” – a term previously used to describe the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
It also showed images of the immediate aftermath where paramedics were seen helping someone in military fatigues laying on the ground. Other armed security personnel shouted at each other in front of what appeared to be a viewing stand for the parade.
Ahvaz is the capital of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province. The province in the past has seen Arab separatists attack oil pipelines.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp have been the sword and shield of Shia clerical rule in Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The Guards, the most powerful and heavily armed military force in the Islamic Republic, also play a big role in Iran’s regional interests in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
They answer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and have a vast stake worth billions of dollars in the economy.