By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 18, 2011; 11:12 AM
TEHRAN - Thousands of Iranian government supporters Friday demanded the execution of opposition leaders, but an influential Muslim cleric said they should be placed under permanent house arrest.
The calls came as Iran's opposition movement planned new anti-government demonstrations Sunday.
During a Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said that prosecuting the opposition leaders was not "expedient" at this time. Instead, he said that former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi must be "cut off" from the world.
"The connection of the heads of sedition with the public must be cut," Jannati told thousands of worshipers. "The doors of their houses must be shut. Their interaction with the outside world must be limited. Their telephone and Internet must be cut. They must be imprisoned in their own houses."
The crowd nevertheless responded with calls for the execution of the opposition leaders, whom authorities have accused of undermining Iran's system of Islamic governance. Some government supporters held up posters showing a man who was shot during a massive anti-government protest Monday. Both the government and the opposition claim to have been supported by the 26-year-old art student. A 22-year-old man was also killed Monday.
Jannati condemned the anti-government rallies, calling them "riots" and saying they had nothing to do with solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia - the original theme of the opposition demonstrations. "Everyone knows that this was false, a deceit and a trick," Jannati said.
Monday's surprise protests led to battles with security forces along the six-mile length of Enghelab, or Revolution, Street. Since then, Iran's parliament, influential clerics and paramilitary organizations have been demanding the swift trial and execution of Karroubi, 73, a Shiite cleric who once served as speaker of parliament, and Mousavi, 68, a former prime minister.
However, Jannati's call for permanent house arrest indicated that Iran's leaders are not keen on taking the two men into custody and putting them on trial at this time. Such a move could incite new protests, analysts said.
Since the initial house arrest of Karroubi and Mousavi, which opposition Web sites said started on Thursday last week, a group calling itself the "Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope" has been trying to organize protests. On Thursday, it published a statement on Mousavi's Web site, Kaleme.com, calling on anti-government activists to demonstrate on Sunday. The statement is being repeated on Internet and foreign-based Farsi-language satellite stations.
"This momentous participation ... will be a fervent support for the positions of the heads of the movement Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi for continuing the grueling path of freedom and human dignity," the statement said. The council indicated that the arrest or house arrest of the two leaders would not end calls to protest.
No location for Sunday's protest has yet been announced, but the statement mentioned that it would commemorate the martyrs whose "blood that was spilled" during Monday's anti-government demonstration. Sunday marks the seventh day since the deaths of the two men during the protest, a traditional milestone for mourning in Iran.