By Thomas Erdbrink
Thursday, December 24, 2009; A06
TEHRAN -- Iran's national police commander said demonstrators will face a fierce crackdown if their "illegal" activities continue, the semi-official Fars news agency reported Wednesday, following several days of anti-government protests and officials calling for the arrest of the political leaders of the opposition.
"We advise this movement to end their activities," Iran's national police chief, Brig. Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, said, according to Fars. "Otherwise those who violate the order will be fiercely confronted, based on the law," he said.
Eyewitnesses reported protests and clashes Wednesday in Qom, Isfahan and Najafabad, where supporters of dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died Sunday, battled police and plainclothes paramilitary forces.
Moghaddam spoke as a deputy representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday, warning that physical attacks on the political leaders of the opposition, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, could fan the flames of protest in the country.
"Sometimes you have to approach people with physical action, for others non-physical action is necessary," Hojjatoleslam Mojtaba Zolnour said while meeting with members of the paramilitary Basij organization Tuesday night in Bushehr.
Independent paramilitary groups have staged attacks on Mousavi and Karroubi, the last one Sunday when Mousavi's motorcade was attacked in Qom.
"If we throw all three heads of the green sedition into prison, nothing will happen at all," Zolnour said, warning the Basij forces not to act independently toward the two leaders, whose movement uses the color green. "But if we take any physical action against them, it is possible that the flames of these issues will spread."
State authorities have long been contemplating the arrest of the opposition leaders, but some officials have publicly said they fear such a move would only cause more protests. The funeral Sunday for Montazeri, which attracted tens of thousands and possibly more anti-government demonstrators, again showed the opposition is able to rally large groups of people.
Instead of arresting the opposition leaders, authorities have made attempts to isolate the two men and their aides, preventing them from leaving their houses at times and taking away their offices and official positions. But they still manage to travel through the country and get their messages out through the Internet.
On Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew back from the city of Shiraz, breaking his schedule while on a provincial visit to sign an order firing Mousavi from his position of head of the arts academy and replacing him with one of his own supporters, Fars reported.
More anti-government protests are expected in the coming days. On Thursday, a four-day mourning period for a Shiite saint starts, with millions of people expected to take to the streets for commemoration parades. Opposition members have vowed to use the opportunity for protests and are calling for a mass gathering in Tehran on Sunday, the day of Ashura, the high point of the mourning period.
The protests and clashes in the provincial towns of Isfahan, Qom, and Najafabad have been the fiercest outside of Tehran since the unrest that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed election victory in June.
Influential Shiite clerics have recently joined some of the protest meetings, a further sign that some prominent clergy are siding with the opposition movement.