Antigovernment agitation in Iranian Kurdestan has put the country's new military administration on the defensive here.
Apparently fearful of provoking the region's 3.5 million Kurdish tribesman and possibly reviving their warrior tradition, local authorities have given in to demands for the release of seven Kurdish political prisoners and appear to be handling this city's populace very cautiously.
Nevertheless, Kurdish religious leaders and political dissidents - like most of the opposition in Iran to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - say they will not be satisfied until the shah is removed from power and his newly installed military government replaced with "an Islamic democracy."
Political observers in Tehran view the Kurdish opposition as another potentially serious problem for the shah's embattled government. The Kurd in Iran have close ethnic ties with Kurdish tribes that have periodically fought for autonomy from the government of neighboring Iraq.
To demonstrate its opposition, the local Sunni Moslem clergy called for a general strike starting yesterday in Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Iranian Kurdestan, and outlying towns. Sanandaj is 240 miles west of Tehran, near the Iraqi border.
"The strike is to show our hatred of the military government," the region's main religious leader, Ahmad Muftizadeh, said in an interview. He said the strike was to last indefinitely.
"What we want is exactly the same as what the people of Iran as a whole want," Muftizadeh said. He stressed that the region's Kurds do not seek to take advantage of the current unrest to set up their own separate state in Iran.
"But when there is a personal assault there will be a personal reaction," he said, indicating that if the government tries to suppress Kurdish opposition the Kurds will react as a group.
Many kurds in Sanandaj, whose approximately 108,000 population is more than 19 percent Kurdish, took the arrest last week of seven of their number on political charges as just such a personal assault. Demanding their release, at least 2,000 Kurds began a sit-in last Wednesday at the city's Jomeh mosque, and hundreds of others have periodically joined the protest.
The protesters have continued their vigil despite the release Saturday of those arrested.
When the first foreign visitors entered the darkened mosque recently to see the sit-in, shouts of welcome went and several people pushed forward to tell their stories.
One excited Kurd wearing an army surplus jacket claimed government forces fired on demonstrators the day before in Marivan, a village on the Iraqi border.
Some people fled into the surrounding mountains and he had just come down from the hills to take refuge in the mosque, he added.
In Sanandaj, the authorities seem more willing to tolerate opposition activities, although 15 people have been killed here by security forces since the first anti-government demonstrations broke out in October.
Dissidents religious and political literature banned in other towns is sold freely in the city's bookstores, and Kurds who oppose the shah's government seem to have the run of the place. They make no attempt at secrecy and seem unintimidated by the few truckloads of army troops stationed in main squares.
Muftizadeh cited the release of the seven Kurdish prisoners as another example of the government's cautious attitude.
"The government did not explain why it decided to free them, but apparently it was forced to," he said.
According to other dissident Kurds, Sanandaj regidents have struck back at the secret police. Sayak, on several occasions following shooting incidents or arrests. They said mobs stoned and set fire to five houses belonging to local SAVAK agents. Visitors saw the hulk of a burned out American car reportedly owned by another SAVAK man.
At a walled complex on the outskirts of town said to contain the local SAVAK headquarters, soldiers in combat gear and carrying automatic rifles with bayonets stood guard on rooftops secured by sand-bagged positions.
"SAVAK is afraid of the people because they are united," a dissident Kurdish lawyer said. "If a SAVAK man shoots or arrests somebody, the people say, 'He will kill you.'"
Aside from these cases, opponents of the shah in Sanandaj generally seem to have refrained from the mob violence that has struck dozens of other cities and towns across Iran since the beginning of the year. The local office of the government's political party, Rastakhiz, has been fire bombed, but banks and movie theatres -- frequent targets elsewhere - are largely intact.
The 42-year-old Muftizaden, will claims to speak for the Sunni Kurd who make up about two-thirds Iran's Kurdish population, said he favors "passive resistance" and peaceful strikes to oppose the government.
For the time being, some of the younger and less conservative followers are willing to go along with the kind of protest to avoid violence. "But if this way is not successful," one said, "we will take up arms. There are very few guns around, but we can get more if we want to."