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Unrest fuels feud among Iran clerics

Opposition is tied to terrorists

By Nazila Fathi and Michael Slackman
New York Times / June 22, 2009
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TEHRAN - A rift among Iran’s ruling clerics deepened yesterday over the disputed presidential election that has convulsed Tehran in the worst violence in 30 years, with the government attempting to link the defiant loser to terrorists and detaining relatives of his powerful backer, a founder of the Islamic republic.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the moderate reform candidate who contends that the June 12 election was stolen from him, fired back at his accusers yesterday in a posting on his website, calling on his own supporters to demonstrate peacefully despite stern warnings from Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that no protests of the vote would be allowed.

“Protesting to lies and fraud is your right,’’ Mousavi said in a direct challenge to Khamenei’s authority.

Earlier, the police detained five relatives of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who leads two influential councils and openly supported Mousavi’s election. The relatives, including Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, were released after several hours.

The developments, coming one day after violent protests in the capital and elsewhere were crushed by police and militia using guns, clubs, tear gas, and water cannons, suggested that Khamenei was facing entrenched resistance among some members of the elite.

Though rivalries among top clerics have been part of Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution, analysts said that open factional competition amid a major political crisis could hinder Khamenei’s ability to restore order.

There was no verifiable accounting of the death toll from the Saturday mayhem, partly because the government has imposed severe restrictions on news coverage and warned foreign reporters who remained in the country to stay off the street. It also ordered the BBC’s longtime correspondent expelled and ordered Newsweek’s correspondent detained.

Vowing not to have a repeat of Saturday, the government saturated major streets and squares of Tehran with police and Basij militia forces. There were reports of scattered confrontations but no confirmation of any new injuries by yesterday evening. But as they had on previous nights, many residents of the capital clambered to their rooftops as night fell and could be heard shouting “Death to the dictator!’’ and “God is Great,’’ their rallying cries since the crisis began.

It was unclear whether protests, which began after the government declared that the conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had won reelection in a landslide against Mousavi, would be sustained in the face of the clampdown.

Amateur video accounts showed at least one large protest gathering, on Shirazi Street, though it was unclear how long it lasted.

But in the network of Internet and Twitter postings that has become the opposition’s major tool for organizing and sharing information, a powerful and vivid new image emerged: a video posted on several websites that showed a young woman, called Neda, her face covered in blood. Text posted with the video said she had been shot. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the video.

But even the website of another reformist candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, referred to her as a martyr who did not “have a weapon in her soft hands or a grenade in her pocket but became a victim by thugs who are supported by a horrifying security apparatus.’’

Accounts of the crisis in the government press suggested that the government may be laying the groundwork for discrediting and arresting Mousavi. The official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Alireza Zahedi, a member of the Basiji militia, as saying Mousavi had provoked the violence, sought help from outside the country to do it and should be put on trial. The Fars news agency quoted a Tehran University law professor as saying that Mousavi had acted against “the security of the nation.’’ State television suggested that at least some of the unrest was instigated by an outlawed terrorist group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, which does not have a strong following in Iran.

Mousavi was not seen in public yesterday but showed no sign of yielding. In his Web posting, he urged followers to “avoid violence in your protest and behave as though you are the parents that have to tolerate your children’s misbehavior at the security forces.’’