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Volunteers from Iran set off to join `holy war'

TEHRAN -- Surrounded by yellow Hezbollah flags, more than 60 Iranian volunteers set off yesterday to join what they called a holy war against Israeli forces in Lebanon.

The group -- ranging from teenagers to grandfathers -- plans to join about 200 other volunteers on the way to the Turkish border, which they hope to cross today. They plan to reach Lebanon via Syria over the weekend.

Iran says it will not send regular forces to aid Hezbollah, but apparently it will not attempt to stop volunteer guerrillas. Iran and Syria are Hezbollah's main sponsors.

Organizers said the volunteers were not carrying weapons, and it was not clear whether Turkey would let them pass.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not say yesterday whether they would be allowed to cross. Iranians, however, can enter Turkey without a visa and stay for three months.

``We are just the first wave of Islamic warriors from Iran," said Amir Jalilinejad, chairman of the Student Justice Movement, a nongovernment group that helped recruit the fighters. ``More will come from here and other Muslim nations around the world. Hezbollah needs our help."

Military service is mandatory in Iran and nearly every man has at least some basic training. Some hard-liners have more extensive drills as members of the Basiji corps, a paramilitary network linked to the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

Other volunteers, such as 72-year-old Hasan Honavi, have combat experience from the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

``God made this decision for me," said Honavi, a grandfather and one of the oldest volunteers. ``I still have fight left in me for a holy war."

Iran insists it is not directly involved in the conflict on the military side, but it remains the group's key pipeline for funds. Iran has dismissed Israel's claims that Hezbollah has been supplied with upgraded Iranian missiles that have reached Haifa and other points across northern Israel.

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