A group of gunmen who fired on a military parade in Iran’s Ahvaz killed more than two dozen people and wounded more than 50 others in a rare attack on the country’s powerful security establishment, state media said Saturday.
The assault by alleged militants in Ahvaz – in southwestern Iran and the hub for a minority Arab community – marked one of the deadliest attacks in Iran in years and threatened to raise tensions in a region already plagued by turmoil.
Iranian state media said that 25 people, including civilians and members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, had been killed. At least 60 others were wounded, including some who were in critical condition.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency said at least four gunmen – some apparently dressed in military uniforms – opened fire on reviewing stands for a parade to mark the start of Iran’s war with Iraq during the 1980s. The provincial governor in Ahvaz, Gholamreza Shariati, told IRNA that two gunmen were killed and two others were arrested.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility in a statement carried by the affiliated Amaq News Agency. Iran is predominantly Shiite Muslim and is at odds with Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which view Shiites as heretics and have attacked Shiite targets across the region.
But a competing claim of responsibility also came from the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, a separatist faction that seeks an Arab-led state in southwest Iran.
Yacoub Hor al-Tostari, a spokesman for the separatist group, told The Associated Press that the attack was carried out by Ahvaz militants.
Islamic State militants were believed linked to twin strikes in June 2017 against Iran’s parliament and the shrine of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1989 Islamic revolution. At least 18 people were killed in the two attacks.
However, the Islamic State often asserts a role in bloodshed around the world without providing clear evidence to support the claim and its statement was greeted skeptically. The statement initially said that the attack had targeted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was not at the parade.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif vowed Saturday on Twitter to “respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives.”
“Terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz. Children and journos among casualties,” Zarif said. “Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their U.S. masters accountable for such attacks.”
While the identities of the attackers remained unclear, a spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps blamed minority Arab separatists for the bloodshed. He accused Saudi Arabia, a regional rival, of funding the militant group he said was responsible. Earlier, state television said the attack was carried out by Sunni “takfiri terrorists,” a reference to Muslims viewed as traitors to their own faith.
In a series of messages on Twitter, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the attack on American allies in the region, calling it “a continuation of conspiracies by US-backed regimes in region which have aimed at creating insecurity in our dear country.”
Ahvaz is home to the small Arab minority in Iran, which is mainly ethnic Persian, and has been the site of sporadic unrest. This summer, residents of the area staged protests amid severe water shortages. Members of the Ahvaz Arab minority have long accused the government in Tehran of neglect.
In one video posted online, soldiers participating in the parade initially seemed confused about the source of the gunfire. They soon scatter as the shootout intensifies.
“Get on the ground!” one man yells. Images also showed bloodied soldiers limping toward ambulances and troops helping escort women and children to safety.
A regional Guard commander in Khuzestan, Hassan Shahvarpour, said all four of the assailants were killed in clashes with security forces on the scene, state television reported.
A resident of Ahvaz, who wished to remain anonymous, said that police and security forces were “everywhere” in the city and that movement between neighborhoods was difficult.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said: “The United States stands with the Iranian people and encourages the regime in Tehran to focus on keeping them safe at home.”
In 2017, the assailants were identified as members of Iran’s Sunni Kurdish minority who had joined the Islamic State. In July, Iran executed eight people convicted in the attacks.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham, Bijan Sabbagh