Opposition to make presence known at rally marking Iran's revolution

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

TEHRAN -- When Niloofar, a 24-year-old Iranian blogger and anti-government activist, sees people throwing stones at baton-wielding paramilitaries during opposition protests, she feels happy. "They are beating us," she said. "So we are allowed to fight back."

Rahim Vesali, 27, a political scientist and documentary filmmaker who staunchly supports Iran's government, sees justice on the other side and does not question the need to respond when the Islamic system is threatened by protesters. "They should harshly deal with these rioters," he said.

Both Tehran residents are preparing to demonstrate during a rally celebrating the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution Thursday, when people could take to the streets in numbers not seen since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed election victory last June.

The anniversary, which regularly draws millions in the capital alone, is usually a day of Iranian unity on which families shout slogans against the West. But this year, Niloofar, who will publicly denounce the government, and Vesali, who vows to defend the ruling clerics, show how divided this country has become.

Niloofar, a petite, dark-haired woman who declined to give her last name for fear of retaliation, did not stop going to demonstrations even when her friend was shot in the leg by the pro-government Basij militia. Authorities have blocked access to her popular blog, so now she sends e-mails. Her friends have been arrested, and Niloofar says she's ready to go to prison for her beliefs.

"They have blocked my site, turned off the Internet, cut cellphone service and have hanged two people for participating in the protests, but still our movement grows during each demonstration," she said with a broad smile. "No one can stop information these days."

Niloofar said she has always been dissatisfied with the Islamic republic, but she does not favor an overthrow of the religious system.

"We need reforms, not complete chaos. Our demands should not go too far; otherwise we will face extremists who might lead the country to civil war," she said.

During the tumultuous election period, when tens of thousands of people held unprecedented street gatherings in support of their candidates, Niloofar joined the campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's main challenger. Working as a monitor in a polling station, she witnessed what she described as fraud.

"Preliminary results were announced on TV while we were still counting. Our ballot boxes disappeared," she said. Officially, Ahmadinejad won with 25 million votes, compared to 13 million for Mousavi. The opposition contends the election was stolen and has demanded it be nullified.

The election unleashed an anger that had been building for years. Now, nearly eight months later, Niloofar is still seething, no longer over the vote but over the government's massive crackdown in reaction to the protests. The pace of arrests has intensified in recent days, with journalists and others suspected of involvement with the opposition rounded up. Niloofar said the protests must continue for the sake of the large number of demonstrators who have been detained.

"The government calls us rioters to justify their own violence against people. They are hanging demonstrators, but this will not stop the people's resolve," she said. "We must continue to protest, or all our friends in prison will be hanged."


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