Clashes erupt at Iran cleric’s funeralClashes erupt at Iran cleric’s funeral

Monday, December 21, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran - Security forces clashed with opposition supporters after the funeral of Iran's top dissident cleric in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom on Monday, a reformist Web site reported.

Norooz Web site said there was a heavy presence of security forces around the house of late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in Qom and that protesters threw stones at them.

Mourners also chanted anti-government slogans, Web sites reported. Witnesses told The Associated Press that many mourners chanted protest slogans, including "Death to the Dictator," in displays of anger against Iran's ruling establishment.

Montazeri, who died on Saturday night aged 87, was viewed as the spiritual patron of an opposition movement that blossomed after a disputed presidential election in June and has proved resilient despite repeated efforts to suppress it.

Fierce critic

The reformist Web site Jaras said hundreds of thousands of people joined a procession for Montazeri, an architect of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah. He later became a fierce critic of its present hard-line leadership.

"They were shouting slogans in his support and also in support of (opposition leader) Mir Hossein Mousavi," Jaras said.

Ayande Web site, seen as close to conservative politician Mohsen Rezaie, said: "The burial ceremony has come to an end and the crowd are in the streets around the shrine demonstrating and shouting anti-government slogans."

The reformist Kaleme Web site said crowds carrying "green symbols" had chanted: "Today is the day of mourning and the green Iranian nation is the owner of this mourning," referring to the color adopted by the opposition.

The reports could not be verified independently. Foreign media have been banned from reporting on protests and also from traveling to Qom for Montazeri's funeral.

Riot police were out in force to in Qom, 80 miles south of Tehran for the funeral of the senior Shiite cleric who had been a thorn in the side of the establishment during his life.

Heart attack

His death of a heart attack occurred at a tense moment when the government was seeking to choke off any attempt by its opponents to use the run-up to the Shiite religious occasion of Ashura to stage large-scale rallies.

Now the seventh-day mourning ritual for Montazeri will coincide with Ashura on Sunday, perhaps amplifying the intensity of any protests. The Islamic nature of the occasion makes it harder for the authorities to keep people off the streets.

The internal upheaval, highlighted by Montazeri's arguments the leadership had lost its legitimacy, has complicated a long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which the West believes may have military, not just civilian purposes.

Mousavi, the main opposition leader reached Qom and had given Montazeri's family his condolences, the reformist Web site Kaleme said. But security forces were reported to have intercepted other activists on their way to the city.

Opposition figures declared a national day of mourning for Montazeri, who was named in the 1980s to succeed revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but was shunted aside after he criticized mass executions of prisoners.

Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini after he died in 1989, expressed his condolences, but said he asked God to forgive Montazeri over a "difficult and critical test" that he faced toward the end of Khomeini's life," ISNA news agency said. Khamenei made clear he believed Montazeri failed the test.

'High goals'

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance told newspapers in Tehran not to print front-page photographs of Montazeri or carry condolence messages, except for Khamenei's, the Kaleme and Parlemannews Web sites said. No official comment was available.

Khomeini's grandson, Hassan Khomeini, a cleric, paid tribute in his condolence message to a man he said had "spent many years of his honorable life on the path of advancing the high goals of Islam and the Islamic revolution," ILNA news agency reported.

Human rights activist and Nobel prize laureate Shirin Ebadi called Montazeri "the father of human rights in Iran."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election in a June vote that losing candidates Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi said was rigged sparked the worst unrest in the Islamic Republic's 30-year history and split the political and clerical establishment.



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