Iranians mark the Shiite holiday Ashura with mass unrest in Tehran

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 27, 2009; A18

TEHRAN -- Iran's opposition is gearing up for a potentially large demonstration against the government on Sunday to coincide with the climax of a major Shiite religious commemoration.

The Rah-e Sabz Web site, a mouthpiece of the grass-roots opposition movement, called for nationwide protests around noon in the capital, which on Saturday was the scene of several clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police.

"Today was only a test to show our readiness," read a statement on the Web site, which also denounced the government's use of violence during the present period of mourning for a Shiite saint. "Tomorrow we will come out following the invitations of the social network Green Path Of Hope movement."

The demonstrations started after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in June and show no sign of winding down. Pro-government forces, however, appear determined to stamp out the protests, which they say are illegal and abetted by foreign enemies.

Security forces clad in black clashed with protesters in northern Tehran on Saturday after a speech by opposition leader and former president Mohammad Khatami. After the police intervened, thousands of protesters fanned out through the area.

The roads were clogged with cars, many honking their horns in support of the protesters. About 50 armed government supporters attacked a building used as an office by the household of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic, according to witnesses and the parlemannews Web site, which is critical of the government.

Khomeini's children, who are known opposition supporters, were present as the windows were smashed. "Abolfazl, the standard-bearer, keep Khamenei safe!" the attackers shouted, referring to a Shiite saint and to Iran's ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Web site reported.

"There are so many people on the streets, I am amazed," a member of the riot police said to his colleagues as he rested on his motorcycle in a north Tehran square. Two women in traditional black chadors flashed victory signs to passing cars, egging them on to honk in support of the opposition.

Earlier, hundreds of police officers supported by dozens of members of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and the paramilitary Basij force clashed with small groups of protesters along Enghelab (Revolution) Street, one of the capital's main thoroughfares, at times beating people in an effort to disperse them. Some protesters shouted slogans in support of the political leader of the opposition, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The protests, which followed anti-government demonstrations in three Iranian cities in recent days, come as Iran observes the 10 days of Muharram, a mourning period for Imam Hussein, the Shiite saint whose death in the 7th century sealed the rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over the succession of the prophet Muhammad. On Sunday, Shiites worldwide commemorate the day of his death during Ashura, meaning "10th" in Arabic.

This year, Ashura falls on the seventh day after the death of the opposition movement's religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Messages spread through the Internet and Farsi-language opposition satellite channels have called for a large demonstration in the center of Tehran on Sunday, but opposition leaders have released no statements about such a gathering.

The violence used by security forces on Saturday suggested that Sunday protests could be met with strong resistance. The use of state force during this Shiite mourning period could inspire protesters to draw parallels with the death of Hussein, the saint whose small band of supporters fought a losing battle against a powerful and repressive army.

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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