Mournful Iranians attend funeral of late leader

TEHRAN: Hundreds of thousands of mourners flooded the streets of Tehran on Tuesday wailing in grief for the late Iranian leader Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died over the weekend at the age of 82.

The crowds filled main thoroughfares of the capital as top government and clerical officials held a funeral service at Tehran University. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei held prayers by Rafsanjani's casket, as other dignitaries knelt before the coffin on which his white turban was placed, reaching their hands out for one final embrace.

Just behind Ayatollah Khamenei was President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani, who is all but certain to run for re-election in May, is viewed as embodying Rafsanjani's realist vision.

Hard-liners also took part in the ceremony Tuesday, which was a public holiday across the country. Among them was Qassem Soleimani, a general who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, which focuses on foreign operations like the war in Syria.

Both Soleimani and Rafsanjani are from Iran's southeastern province of Kerman and worked together during the 1980s US backed Iraqi war.

Outside, mourners carried posters bearing Rafsanjani's image as his casket slowly made his way through the streets.

"I rarely attend religious ceremonies, but I am here as an Iranian who cannot forget Rafsanjani's contribution to developing political sphere in favor of people in recent years," said Nima Sheikhi, a computer teacher at a private school.

Nearby was cleric Reza Babaei from the eastern town of Birjand near Afghan border. "I am here to say goodbye to a man who dedicated his life to make Iran better," Babaei said. "He founded the university in my city and developed our region when he was in power."

Many in the crowds chanted that they would continue along Rafsanjani's "path."

Rafsanjani's casket was taken to the ornate, massive shrine of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rafsanjani was buried by the side of leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the rule of the American-backed shah.

Rafsanjani, a close aide to both Imam Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, served as president from 1989 to 1997.

His life mirrored Iran's modern history. He served as a close aide of Islamic Republics founder. He was his representative in war council in the 1980s. He helped launch Iran's nuclear program and then pushed for reconciliation with the West.

He was considered a protector of the moderates, but many reformers distrusted him because he was such an insider. Many among hard-liners distrusted him because of his support of moderates and sought to sideline him, but he was too powerful and entrenched to be discounted.

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