TEHRAN // Police in Tehran clashed yesterday with hundreds of opposition protesters who had attempted to turn a Shiite mourning ceremony into an anti-government protest, according to eyewitnesses and opposition websites. Supporters of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi had called for a protest rally on Tasua, a Shiite day of mourning held on the ninth day of the month of Moharram in the Islamic calendar.
Opposition activists have also called for more protests on the 10th day of Moharram, Ashura, which is the apex of Shiite ceremonies commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, in 680AD. The day is marked by huge processions by Shiite communities all over the Muslim world. Foreign press have been banned from reporting from the scene of opposition street protests. Yesterday, various security forces, including riot police and plainclothes Basij, who are militiamen associated with the Revolutionary Guard, were deployed in huge numbers in several of Tehran's main squares and along the several kilometre-long boulevard that stretches from Imam Hossein Square in the east of the city to Azadi Square in the west, according to witnesses.
Crowds had gathered near Jamaran mosque, where reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami was due to deliver a speech, the AFP news agency reported. Mr Khatami's speech was scheduled for 6pm but according to reports by opposition websites, he was not allowed to attend, and thousands of people protested around the site. "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 tear gas," one witness told the agency.
Reuters reported a witness saying: "Police are clashing with the protesters who chant 'Death to the Dictator' and 'Ya Hossein, Mirhossein'." Police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam had warned the opposition on Thursday that any attempt at anti-government rallies would be harshly suppressed. Authorities have imposed unprecedented regulations for this year's mourning ceremonies and processions to prevent the opposition from high-jacking Tasua and Ashura events for anti-government rallies.
Neighbourhood mourning groups that traditionally hold the ceremonies have been required to announce the route of their processions to local police authorities and are banned from the streets outside of prescribed hours. According to eye witnesses, yesterday morning no processions could be seen on the main streets of central Tehran where a protest rally had earlier been called by the opposition Green Movement.
Tear gas and shots fired into the air were used to disperse small groups of protesters who stood on the sidewalks and chanted anti-government slogans, opposition websites, including Jaras, claimed. Reports on the sites also said police blocked streets in central Tehran where protesters were expected to attempt to march. Large traffic jams formed in several places along the boulevard according to Jaras website which claimed that people in the cars joined in the protest by honking their horns. In some instances, people on public buses alongside the road chanted anti-government slogans, an eyewitness said.
According to an unconfirmed report by Iran News Agency, an opposition news portal that claims to be independent, all 30 passengers of a bus that had been chanting slogans in support of the protesters on the streets were detained and taken away by the riot police. According to another unconfirmed report by the Human Rights Activists News Agency - a news portal run by Iranian human rights activists - at least 10 protesters were arrested by the police yesterday.
The passing away of top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Montazeri last Sunday and the massive turnout of opposition protesters to his funeral in the holy city of Qom the following day has heightened expectations for renewed clashes between opposition protesters and security forces during this year's Ashura festival, which coincides with the seventh day after death ceremony of the deceased ayatollah.
The family of the deceased ayatollah cancelled all subsequent memorial services - normally held on the evening of the day of the funeral and on the third and the seventh days following death - to prevent violence against mourners. Opposition news portals claim that the cancellation was due to a ban on all ceremonies by authorities. The several hundred thousand strong rally by mourners of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri in Qom, during which anti-government slogans were chanted, proceeded peacefully. The opposition has vowed to mark the seventh day after the grand ayatollah's death today during the traditional Ashura festival.