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Iran's Khamenei defends Revolutionary Guard in Friday sermon

Supreme leader leads prayers in Tehran for first time in eight years as the country's rulers face intense pressure at home and abroad
Khamenei used his sermon to defend the Revolutionary Guard Corps following public anger to downing a Ukrainian airliner (AFP)

Iran's supreme leader delivered a Friday sermon for the first time in eight years, as the country's rulers face pressure at home and abroad following the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Iran's accidental downing of a commercial airliner. 

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used his sermon to defend the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as it faces a growing backlash after it admitted to mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane and killing 176 people. 

The leader called on the plane crash, which he described as a bitter tragedy, to not overshadow the assassination of Soleimani and claimed that "Iran's enemies" used the plane crash and the IRGC admission to "weaken" the Revolutionary Guard. 

"The plane crash was a bitter accident, it burned through our heart," Khamenei said.

"But some tried to ... portray it in a way to forget the great martyrdom and sacrifice" of Soleimani, he added, referring to the slain head of the IRGC's foreign operations arm.

"Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad ... happy that they found something to question the Guard, the armed forces, the system."

'Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad ... happy that they found something to question the Guard, the armed forces, the system'

- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

Thousands had gathered inside a large prayer hall in central Tehran to hear Khamenei's sermon and packed an area outside the building. 

Chants of "death to America" and "no compromise" were heard outside the hall where Khamenei was delivering his sermon. 

Earlier this week, Iranian authorities said a number of people had been arrested over the accidental shooting of the Ukrainian airliner. 

"Thorough investigations have been launched and a number of individuals have been arrested," Iranian judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili said in an official statement. 

Vigils for the passengers who lost their lives on the downed Ukrainian airliner turned into protests with images showing Iranians taking down posters of Soleimani and chanting "death to Khamenei".

Commenting on the anti-government protests, Khamenei said: "The few hundred who insulted the picture of General Soleimani, are they the people of Iran? Or this million-strong crowd in the streets?"