Jan. 17 (UPI) -- In a rare Friday address, Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed the missile strikes that damaged two U.S. bases in Iraq last week and injured nearly a dozen American service members.
Speaking to a large crowd during Friday prayers in Tehran, Khamenei said the Jan. 8 missile strikes by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps represented a symbolic victory, and called U.S. President Donald Trump a "clown" who would take any opportunity to stab Iranians in the back.
"The day the missiles of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps crushed the U.S. base is one of the days of God," the top Iranian cleric said. "The Guards' response was a major blow to America's fearsome superpower image."
The 80-year-old Khamenei, in his first appearance at Friday prayers in eight years, praised the slain commander Qassem Soleimani, who led the IRGC's elite Quds Force. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike several days before Iran's retaliatory assault on the al-Asad and Erbil bases.
The Pentagon and Trump initially said no American troops were hurt -- a claim the Defense Department went back on Thursday, reporting 11 had been taken to hospitals with concussion symptoms.
Trump said Soleimani was an architect of terror in the Middle East who'd been planning a wave of new attacks against U.S. interests. In his remarks Friday, Khamenei disputed the depiction of Soleimani as a terrorist, calling him a martyr and saying the millions of Iranians who turned out for his funeral revealed "the hand of God."
Khamenei's rare public appearance followed days of protests across Iran over the accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people. Demonstrators have called for Khamenei to be removed from power for the accident.