Iran anti-government clashes erupt on Shiite holy day

Iranian riot police fired teargas in clashes with thousands of opposition supporters who shouted anti-government slogans during a Shiite mourning event on Saturday, witnesses said.

The skirmishes broke out in north Tehran despite authorities having warned of a crackdown on attempts to use processions marking the solemn Ashura rituals to stage more protests against the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Police told them they have five minutes to leave and, when they were still shouting slogans and persisted, policemen on motorbikes drove through the crowds and fired teargas," a witness said. opposition website said security officials cancelled an Ashura speech by reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami at Jamaran mosque, which was surrounded by police and security forces.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic republic, used to address people at the same location.

Iranian men use chains to flagellate themselves during a religious mourning event to mark Ashura in Tehran.

Protesters shouted "death to this dictatorship" and "if Khomeini was alive, he would sure be with us," according to the witnesses.

Riot police and members of the Islamic Basij militia chased demonstrators into the nearby bustling Niavaran street and fired paintballs at them, witnesses said.

The security forces also arrested several protesters, the witnesses said.

Reformist website Salaamnews said "about 50 plainclothes forces broke into Jamaran" mosque and attacked people. also reported clashes between police and protesters near another north Tehran mosque, Dar al-Zahra, which is known to host reformist clerics.

Opponents of Ahmadinejad's June 12 re-election have increasingly used a series of government-backed public events to mount protests, many of which have ended in clashes with police.

The 10-day Ashura ceremonies, which climax on Sunday, commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and one of the most revered figures of Shiite Islam.

The ceremonies are marked in Shiite majority countries such as Iran and Iraq by processions in which mainly young men flagellate their bare backs with chains.

At nightfall, streets appeared to be quiet in downtown Tehran as mourners went ahead with the traditional ceremonies of Ashura. reported earlier clashes at several points along Enghelab street, a main thoroughfare where hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters had staged protest marches after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election.

Security forces also chased protesters into a building housing the offices of the ISNA news agency, ISNA said, adding one of its reporters had been injured.

An elderly woman travelling on a city bus in the area was heard urging passengers to chant slogans such as "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein" in support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, a witness said.

Former premier Mousavi ran in the June election, which he charged was massively rigged in favour of Ahmadinejad to keep the hardliner in power.

Chants of "Ya Hossein" are common during Ashura when the faithful congregate in mosques or march in street processions beating their chest in mourning for the martyred Shiite imam.

The witness said passengers on the packed bus also chanted "Our Neda is not dead, it is the government which is dead," referring to protestor Neda Agha Soltan, who bled to death during a June 20 protest in shocking scenes caught on video and viewed by millions around the world.

But calm returned to central Tehran in the evening, an AFP correspondent said.

Iran police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam had issued a fresh warning earlier Saturday against attempts to use Shiite processions as a means to stage anti-government protests.

Tensions rose in Iran this week after the death of top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was a vocal backer of the opposition.

Hundreds of thousands attended his funeral, effectively turning the event into an opposition demonstration. Police clashed with his mourners in several cities as the authorities reportedly banned further memorials for the cleric.

Ashura culminates on Sunday in crowded ceremonies at mosques and in public places to mourn Imam Hussein, who died at the hands of the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680 AD.


source AFP

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