Iranians mourn slain woman as power struggle continues

McClatchy NewspapersJune 25, 2009 

TEHRAN, Iran — Defying an official ban, hundreds of people held a graveside tribute Thursday for the woman who's become a symbol of the Iranian opposition after she was killed while protesting the country's disputed election.

Witnesses said the crowd gathered around 5 p.m. Thursday at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, an hour's drive south of Tehran, for a memorial service for Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old woman who allegedly was shot dead by a member of the pro-government Basij militia during a massive protest in the capital on June 20.

"Her grave was covered with white and red roses," said a young man who was present, but who requested anonymity to avoid government retribution.

An amateur video showing Soltan bleeding to death in the street was seen around the world after it was posted on the Internet, transforming her into a symbol of the opposition movement ignited by charges that the government had rigged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide re-election.

Large numbers of black leather-clad Basij members armed with batons kept watch on the gathering but made no move to disperse the crowd, the witness said.

Some experts Thursday said they thought Iran's worst political crisis in 30 years was entering a new phase. They said a power struggle within the country's clerical hierarchy is likely to continue for some time behind closed doors while anti-regime activists seek ways other than mass protests, such as strikes, to challenge the ruling theocracy amid escalating arrests and censorship, they said.

"This is the fire beneath the ashes. It's brewing. It is not volcanic yet," said Reza Molavi, the director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Durham University in Britain. "If we assume that the genie is out of the bottle, I would venture a guess that this will go on."

A European diplomat outside Iran who follows events there closely said on condition of anonymity, following diplomatic protocol, that: "It seems the 'street period' is over" and that government repression "has been quite efficient."

"Now what's going on is the fight inside the regime" pitting a weakened Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and other allies against opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's more pragmatic patrons, the diplomat said. He predicted that the feud within Iran's ruling class could become "quite nasty."

Mousavi said in a statement on his Web site, Kalameh.com, that he'd continue to dispute the official election results, which gave Ahmadinejad a 62.6 percent victory despite an unprecedented turnout, massive unemployment and skyrocketing inflation.

"I will not back down even for a second, even for personal threats or interests," he declared. "A massive fraud took place in this election and afterwards those who opposed the situation were brutally detained, attacked, injured and killed."

Mousavi urged his supporters to continue non-violent protests.

Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, lashed out at President Barack Obama for criticizing the "unjust" use of force against demonstrators. The Iranian leader questioned whether Obama's Iran policy differs from that of his Republican predecessor, casting doubt on the prospects for Obama's initiative to open direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program and other issues.

"Our question from Obama is why has he fallen into this trap and repeated the comments that (President George W.) Bush used to make," Press TV, a state-run English language television, quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "If your approach is the same as before, what is there left to talk about? This attitude will only make you another Bush in the eyes of the people."

Tehran was quiet a day after clashes near the parliament between hundreds of protesters and large numbers of police and members of the Basij militia. At least 27 protesters have died so far in the protests, and state media said that eight Basij members had died.

Hundreds of politicians, intellectuals, students, journalists and others reportedly have been arrested as part of the crackdown, which also has featured massive deployments and nighttime raids by security forces and the Basij.

Riot police and Basij members remained in force on the streets Thursday, poised to break up any protests. Another reason for the calm may be that students, who've been at the center of the protest movement, began the first of two days of university entrance exams.

Mousavi accused state-run and pro-government media of abetting the rigging of the election, and blamed them and the security forces for the unrest.

"They are the ones who lie audaciously and accuse me of the actions they themselves committed," he said. "I am not afraid of being responsive to all these accusations and even am ready to show how electoral criminals are working alongside the main players in the recent commotions to shed people's blood."

Mousavi's Web site said that 70 members of the Islamic Association of University Professors were detained after leaving a meeting Wednesday evening with the opposition leader at which they discussed the elections and the subsequent turmoil.

All but four were released before dawn on Thursday. The four who remained in detention included Mousavi's campaign manager, Ghorban Behzadian-Nehzad.

In the latest illustration of the open divisions within the government, several newspapers reported on Thursday that 105 of 290 members of parliament declined to attend a victory party hosted by Ahmadinejad at the presidential palace on Wednesday.

Etemaad, a centrist newspaper, said that those who didn't attend included Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker and former top nuclear negotiator who's been openly critical of Ahmadinejad.

(The McClatchy special correspondent's name is withheld for reasons of personal security. Landay reported from Washington. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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