Prominent Iranian politicians and clerics led mourners at a funeral Thursday for a senior commander of the country's powerful Revolutionary Guards who was killed this week while traveling from Syria to Lebanon, local media reported.
The semiofficial Fars news agency identified the slain commander as Gen. Hassan Shateri, and said he was in charge of reconstruction projects in southern Lebanon. He was killed on the road linking Damascus with Beirut on Wednesday, it said.
The exact details surrounding Shateri's death — such as where he was killed and who killed him — were still murky two days later. Fars did not specify whether the slaying took place on the Lebanese or Syrian side of the border, although an Iranian official in Damascus said Shateri was killed inside Syria.
Guards spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif was quoted by Fars as saying "mercenaries and supporters" of Israel were responsible. It was unclear whether that allegation meant to implicate the Jewish state itself or rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One report from the Syrian Free Army implied that Israel had killed Shateri during its alleged bombing in Syria two weeks ago.
The Israeli military had no comment.
Syria and its supporters often refer to the rebels as "terrorists" and "mercenaries" backed by foreign powers, including Israel, although Israel is not known to have any ties to Syria's rebels.
None of the dozens of rebel groups fighting in Syria claimed responsibility for the killing, though all are outspoken about their enmity for Iran because of its consistent support for Assad's regime.
Shateri's death points to the support that Iran, the region's Shiite power, provides to both Assad and the Lebanese terrorist Shiite movement Hezbollah. Tehran lends political and military support to Damascus, a close ally, as well as Hezbollah, Iran's proxy in the region. One Iranian clergymen close to the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was quoted as comparing Shateri to Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's secretive former chief of intelligence who was killed in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008. Hezbollah accused Israel of the bombing and has vowed to avenge him.
The Syrian regime and Hezbollah are both critical to Iran's Middle East strategy, and Tehran has pledged to continue its support for Assad as he tries to fend off a relentless and bloody rebellion aimed at toppling his family's 40-year rule.
Tehran counts on Syria as a bridge to Hezbollah — a dominant political force in Lebanon — and an important foothold for the Guard.
In September, the Guard's top commander, Jafari, made a rare public acknowledgment that the elite unit has had high-level advisers in Lebanon and Syria for a long time, but was not more specific. Those comments marked the clearest indication of Iran's direct assistance to its main Arab allies.
Thursday's funeral for Shateri took place at a mosque in north Tehran, Fars and ISNA said.
Several high-ranking Iranian figures attended the service, including Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari and the head of the Guard's Quds Force, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani. Senior clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali Saeedi, the representative of Iran's supreme leader to the Guards, also took part.
Footage of the service broadcast on state TV showed footage of mourners carrying aloft a coffin.
It is unclear what Shateri was doing in Syria. The Iranian official in Damascus said Shateri was on a work visit and that three of his assistants were wounded in the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Fars, which is close to the Guards, said Shateri was a veteran of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, and served in Afghanistan before moving to Lebanon. He is to be buried Friday in his hometown of Semnan, some 150 kilometers (90 miles) east of Tehran.
Lebanese news reports provided a similar account of the killing but a different name.
Al-Manar TV, which is owned by Hezbollah, identified the dead man as Houssam Khosh Nweis. It said he was the director of the Iranian Council for Reconstruction in Lebanon, and that he had lived in the country since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
The difference in the name could not immediately be reconciled, but Iranian military officials in Lebanon often work under an assumed name because their presence in the country is not publicized by Hezbollah.
Lebanese security officials told The Associated Press there was no indication that the Iranian official was killed on Lebanese soil. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.