5 Die in Arson Attack in Zahedan, Iran; Violence Rising as Election Nears

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delivers a speech during an electoral campaign meeting for June 12 presidential elections, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, May 31, 2009. Ahmadinejad faces a tough battle against reformists who have criticized him for spending too much time slamming the West instead of improving Iran's faltering economy. The president has attempted to deflect the blame by playing up Iran's nuclear achievements during his time in office. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delivers a speech during an electoral campaign meeting for June 12 presidential elections, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, May 31, 2009. Ahmadinejad faces a tough battle against reformists who have criticized him for spending too much time slamming the West instead of improving Iran's faltering economy. The president has attempted to deflect the blame by playing up Iran's nuclear achievements during his time in office. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi) (Vahid Salemi - AP)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

TEHRAN, June 1 -- Five people died Monday in an arson attack on an Iranian bank in the southeastern city of Zahedan, where a suicide bombing in a Shiite mosque last week killed 25 people, state news channel Press TV reported.

Violence in the ethnically mixed city near Iran's border with Pakistan and Afghanistan and bomb threats and attacks on opposition figures elsewhere have ratcheted up tension in the country ahead of a presidential election scheduled for June 12.

Monday's arson attack capped several days of violence in the volatile southeastern province of Sistan va Baluchistan, where an Islamist group called Jundullah has asserted responsibility for the mosque bombing Thursday. According to Iran, the separatist group, which regularly carries out attacks and kidnappings in the region, receives support from the United States and is linked to al-Qaeda.

The attack on the Zahedan branch of the Mehr Finance and Credit Institution had been preceded by a shooting, protests and arrests, Iranian news media said.

On Friday, three people were wounded when gunmen attacked a local campaign headquarters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On Saturday, three men were hanged in Zahedan's central square after being convicted of involvement in the attack on the mosque.

Over the weekend, the city was roiled by rioting following protests against the participation of Sunni religious figures in a memorial service for the Shiite victims of the bombing, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported. According to unofficial sources, several people were killed during the unrest.

Iranian officials have accused the United States of assisting the Sunni extremists who said they bombed the mosque.

"Shiite and Sunni brothers, various ethnic groups and political and social currents should observe unity in matters related to elections or matters not related to elections," Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television Monday, adding that "the enemy" was trying to undermine Iranians' unity in the run-up to the voting.

"The extremist groups in the region are linked with some foreign forces in Afghanistan," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters Monday.

In other parts of the country Saturday, two prominent politicians who oppose Ahmadinejad were attacked in separate incidents by people identifying themselves as supporters of the president.

Former president Mohammad Khatami, who is campaigning for Ahmadinejad's main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was assaulted by about 40 people while giving a speech in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, according to the Etemaad newspaper, which is critical of the government.

Meanwhile, police had to intervene in the eastern city of Bojnourd when Ahmadinejad supporters threatened Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, campaign manager for another presidential challenger, Mehdi Karrubi, while he was giving a speech. Neither politician was hurt.

Iranian security officials said Saturday they had found a homemade bomb on a plane flying from the western city of Ahvaz to Tehran. Sources close to Khatami declined to comment on rumors he was on board.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency, which openly supports the Ahmadinejad government, reported that supporters of Mousavi and Karrubi attacked a meeting of Ahmadinejad supporters at Tehran University on Monday.

"Disrupting political meetings is unfortunately a part of the Iranian election culture," Ahmad Zeidabadi, a prominent Karrubi supporter, said in an interview. Zeidabadi said he was assaulted Saturday by Ahmadinejad supporters while giving a political speech in Roodsar, near the Caspian Sea.

"Things like bombs on airplanes and the unrest in Zahedan prove that the past four years have caused a security problem in Iran because Ahmadinejad's government has propagated sectarianism," Zeidabadi said.

"Usually the security atmosphere is relaxed a bit during elections, which is good for us," he added. "Unfortunately, it also gives an opportunity to violent extremists, whom we strongly oppose."


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