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Iranians mark the Shiite holiday Ashura with mass unrest in Tehran

On the streets, protesters mostly fled the security forces. In downtown Tehran, a young man jumped over a steel fence marking the street, but helmeted officers struck him down with batons and dragged him back by an arm and an ear. Another man tried to stop officers beating a woman. "Let her go!" he yelled, as cars honked in protest.

"The police have used minimum violence in countering political unrests, but when these unrests reach the point of causing destruction and chaos we counter it harshly," the commander of the national police force, Gen. Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, said on Saturday, according to the official student news agency ISNA.

Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, political leaders of the grass-roots dissident movement, have remained silent on the protests organized through the Internet. Two weeks ago, Khamenei, the supreme leader, gave them an indirect final warning, accusing them of challenging the country's political system. Analysts said the two men's silence in fact was intended to prevent opponents from accusing them of politicizing the country's most important religious event.

On Friday, people took to the streets in the Shiite holy city of Qom to demand the arrest of Mousavi, according to the semi-official Fars news agency, which supports the government and did not elaborate on the size of the protest. "The people of Qom shouted slogans such as, 'Mousavi, Karroubi must be arrested!' and 'If Mousavi is arrested the sedition will end!' " the agency reported.

The 10-day commemoration of Hussein's death is a sensitive period that not only defines Shiite Islam but also drives politics in Iran. "Everything we have, we owe to Ashura," Khomeini said repeatedly.

But the Ashura narrative has also played a role in the unrest after the disputed presidential election in June, with both supporters and opponents of the government laying claim to Hussein's mantle of victimhood. Members of the opposition say they are the victims of a government-backed coup d'├ętat by the Revolutionary Guard; government supporters say that in rejecting the outcome of the election, the opposition has turned into a band of foreign-backed dictators, wanting to impose their will on the nation.

In the year 680, Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, received a letter from the people of what is now southern Iraq, complaining of oppression under the caliph Yazid, his enemy. Hussein set out with 72 companions to challenge the enormous armies, Shiites say.

For 10 days, Hussein and his family and followers roamed the desert plains near Karbala. Yazid, whom Shiites consider a sly, ruthless liar, offered to spare Hussein's life if he would swear allegiance to him, but Hussein refused. On the 10th and final day of the battle, Hussein and most of his party were killed.

In southern Tehran on Saturday, people handed out food and children waved the green and red flags of Islam as they participated in the annual mourning period.

"There is no other day like yours -- O Hussein," one banner read. But a poster, depicting the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had another text. "Support your leadership," it read. "And your country will not be hurt."

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