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Clashes erupt in Iran on Shi'ite holy day

Tehran, December 26, 2009

A reformist website said Iranian riot police armed with batons and tear gas clashed with opposition backers in Tehran who used a religious commemoration on Saturday to try to revive anti-government protests.

The opposition Jaras website said security forces fired warning shots in the air and tear gas to disperse protesters, and also attacked a building housing an Iranian news agency, ISNA, where it said some opposition backers had sought shelter.

If confirmed, the outbreak of clashes during a two-day major Shi'ite Muslim ritual would underline escalating tension in the Islamic Republic, six months after a disputed election plunged the major oil producer into turmoil.

Despite scores of arrests and security crackdowns, opposition protests have repeatedly flared since the June presidential poll, which the opposition says was rigged to secure hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

"Well-equipped security forces are clashing violently with backers of the opposition in many parts of downtown Tehran," Jaras said. "Opposition supporters sought shelter inside the building of students news agency ISNA to protect themselves ... Police attacked ISNA's building."

It later added: "Riot police are shooting into the air in Enqelab square to disperse demonstrators who chant anti-government slogans."

The Jaras reports could not be independently verified, as foreign media have been banned from covering protests. ISNA's news service appeared to be working normally.

A witness said opposition supporters had gathered in groups along several kilometres (miles) of a main downtown street.

"Police aren't letting them join each other," she said.

Police had warned the pro-reform opposition against staging any new demonstrations during Tasoua and Ashura on Dec 26-27, when Shi'ite Muslims mark the 7th century martyrdom of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

Indicating possible further unrest, the opposition Green Movement urged people to gather in the same Tehran area also on Sunday morning, according to mobile phone text messages.

Ahmadinejad's re-election kindled the biggest unrest in the Islamic state's 30-year history and split the political and clerical establishment.

Authorities deny the opposition's vote rigging charges and have portrayed the huge protests that erupted after the poll as a foreign-backed bid to topple the Islamic establishment, accusing leading reformers of fomenting post-election violence.

Montazeri mourning "ban"

Thousands of people were arrested after the poll. Most of them have since been freed, but more than 80 have received jail sentences of up to 15 years in connection with protests and violence after the vote, the judiciary says.

Iran's internal unrest has complicated a long-running international dispute over its nuclear programme, which the West believes may have military ends, not just civilian purposes.

Saturday's reported clashes come just days before an end-of-year deadline set by world powers for Iran to agree a UN-drafted deal to ship most of its low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for fuel for a Tehran research reactor.

Tension rose again in Iran after the death a week ago of leading dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri at the age of 87 in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom.

Huge crowds attended his funeral procession on Monday, with some people chanting anti-government slogans, and opposition websites reported clashes with security forces in at least three cities over the following days.

Montazeri's death occurred in the tense run-up to Ashura, a religious ceremony that offers the opposition another opportunity to show its strength. This year, it coincides with the seventh day of mourning for the dissident cleric, when more memorial services are usually held.

According to opposition websites, the authorities have banned such ceremonies for Montazeri, with the exception of those held in Qom and in his birthplace, the town of Najafabad.

On Wednesday, opposition websites said security forces clashed with his backers who were gathering for a memorial service for him in Isfahan, one of Iran's biggest cities. There were also reports of scuffles in Najafabad.

An Iranian official denied the reports of violence in Isfahan, blaming foreign media of "staging a psychological war" against the clerical establishment by publishing such reports.

Montazeri, an architect of the 1979 Islamic revolution, was once named to succeed late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader. He fell from grace after criticising the mass execution of prisoners in the late 1980s.

A spiritual patron of the pro-Mousavi movement, he was a fierce critic of the hardline clerical establishment who denounced Ahmadinejad's re-election as fraudulent. – Reuters




Tags: Iran | Tehran | Police | Clashes | Shi’ite | Montezari | Jaras |

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