Mass Funeral Held 35 Years Later for 'Anonymous Martyrs' Killed During Iran-Iraq War

The remains of unknown soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war were removed from various battlefields and returned home to Iran for a mass funeral on Thursday.

The remains of 250 people who died from the 1980s Iranian war which was believed to be started by Iraq's Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party, were returned to different parts of the country and were given a mass funeral attended by thousands of people.

The streets were filled with a sea of men and women wearing black grieving and crying over those who lost their lives in battle.

Trucks carrying stacked coffins draped in flags drove through the streets of Iran's capital Tehran as people gathered around to watch. Pictures showed people placing their hands on the coffins and mourning.

Other remains were returned to two dozen other provinces. None of the 250 recovered victims have been identified. Their tombstones will read "anonymous martyr."

Most of the remains were retrieved from a battlefield at the southwest border of Shalamcheh, roughly 400 miles from Tehran, according to a report from Iranian state TV.

Iran had plans to hold a mass funeral two years ago but had to postpone it because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first time in recent years that Iran honored this many victims of the 1980s war at one once, Hassan Hassanzadeh, a Revolutionary Guard general, told Iranian state TV.

Mass Funeral For Unknown Soldiers
Iranian women mourn next to flag-draped caskets of unknown soldiers who were killed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, whose remains were recently recovered from former battlefields, during their funeral procession in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, January 6, 2022. Thousands of mourners poured into the streets of Iranian cities on Thursday for the mass funeral of 250 victims of the war, a testament to the brutal conflict's widespread scale and enduring legacy 35 years later. Vahid Salemi/AP Photo

The battlefield where the remains were recovered was one of the main war-ravaged sites of Hussein's surprise invasion. Many were killed in Iran's offensive called "Karbala 5" in January 1987 — the war's bloodiest battle that killed up to 19,000 Iranians who struggled to win back some 155 square kilometers (60 square miles) of the country's territory.

Images of Qassem Soleimani, the general killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2020 in Baghdad covered their coffins. For many Iranian families, the conflict's painful legacy drags on in continuous waiting for news of loved ones still "missing."

Thursday's ceremony, also commemorating the death of the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, came as social media in Iran were awash with hashtags and images commemorating the crash of the Ukrainian plane that shocked the world on January 8, 2020. For days, as Iran and the United States teetered on the verge of war, the paramilitary Guard denied downing the plane, ultimately deepening public mistrust and unleashing popular anger in Iran.

This week, hard-liners have been pumping out photos and slogans on Twitter to show solidarity with the recovered Iranian war dead.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the soldiers and offered his support to the family members of victims, Iranian media reported. His conservative protégé, President Raisi, paid his respects at the funeral.

While many Iranian mourners at cemeteries on Thursday wept and pounded their chests in public demonstrations of grief traditional for the Shiite faith, families of the victims killed in the Ukrainian plane shootdown have alleged that security forces are preventing them from gathering to publicly mourn and memorialize their loved ones.

The funeral also comes just days before Iran marks the two-year anniversary of the Iranian military's downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane with two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people on board — a tragedy that ignited an outburst of unrest across Iran and further damaged its relations with the West.

The war that shaped the young theocracy after the 1979 Islamic Revolution continues to haunt Iran. Most of the country's top officials either fought or contributed to the vast war effort. The military sent legions of young conscripts to the battlefields, including those who dropped out of high school to join the volunteer force and never returned.

American support for Saddam's forces during the war, as Iraq unleashed thousands of chemical bombs against Iranians, also helped fuel wariness between Iran and the U.S. that persists today.

While serving as a remembrance for a country routinely consumed in mourning over the grisly war that killed a million people on both sides, the patriotic extravaganza also demonstrated the power of the Iranian hard-liners who organized it, as the country's diplomats met in Vienna for talks over Tehran's tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

With conservatives under President Ebrahim Raisi in control of all branches of government, Iran has presented maximalist demands at the negotiating table, exasperating Western delegates as the country presses its nuclear advances. Meanwhile, tensions have ratcheted up across the region — hostility with roots in U.S. support for Iraq in the eight-year war.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.