Supporters of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah chant slogans as he makes televised remarks at a rally in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Picture: Maya Alleruzzo/AP
Beirut - The leader of Lebanon's Iran-allied Hezbollah movement said Sunday that retribution for the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani should target the US military presence in the Middle East and not US citizens, saying that harming ordinary Americans would play into the hands of President Donald Trump.

The targets will be "all the US military bases in the region, their warships, every single general and soldier in our lands," he said at a ceremony held in Beirut's southern suburbs to commemorate the death of Soleimani. "It is the US military that killed Haj Qassem, and they must pay the price," he added, using an honorific.

But American citizens should not be harmed, he said.

When talking about retribution, "we do not mean the American people," he said. "There are many U.S. civilians in our region - engineers, businessmen, journalists. We will not touch them. Touching any civilian anywhere in the world will only serve Trump's policy.

"The true, just retribution for those who conducted this assassination is an institution, which is the U.S. military. We will launch a battle against those killers, those criminals."

Hezbollah supporters crowded into the vast prayer hall where the ceremony was held punctuated his speech, delivered via video, with chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."

The funeral prayers came two days after a U.S. drone struck Soleimani's vehicle on the road leading from Baghdad airport shortly after he had landed on a scheduled flight from Damascus, Syria. Also killed was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who used a nom de guerre and was the deputy leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and at least seven others.

The entire region has been bracing for Iran's response to the killing, which targeted Iran's most important military commander and the symbol of its expansive influence across the region. Soleimani commanded a network of militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, of which Hezbollah is regarded as the most powerful.

Nasrallah was one of Soleimani's closest associates, and his thinking often coincides with that of the Iranian leadership, which funds and arms the militia.

Nasrallah was careful, however, to avoid mentioning Lebanon as a potential site for retaliation. Rather, he said, "we are not tools to be directed by Iran. They did not ask anything of us and will not ask anything. It is up to us to decide our response."

The bigger goal, he said, is to secure the removal of all U.S. troops from the region, and he focused on Iraq, where parliament voted Sunday on a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to end the foreign troop presence in the country.

Analysts say Hezbollah is in no mood to become embroiled in a wider conflict on Iran's behalf at a time when Lebanon is wracked by anti-government protests that have pointedly included Hezbollah as one of the targets of popular wrath.

The group is on the verge of securing the formation of a new Lebanese government that will include a Hezbollah nominee as prime minister and will effectively be seen as run by Hezbollah, said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. That prize will be squandered if Lebanon becomes embroiled in conflict.

"In Lebanon, the situation is so fragile that my sense is any reaction will be tempered," Yahya said. "Hezbollah, as much as anyone else, really didn't want to go down this route" of confrontation, she said. "The stakes are too high."

The Washington Post