- Associated Press - Friday, September 3, 2010

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Pro-government crowds swarmed outside the battered home of a key Iranian opposition leader Friday after militiamen attacked with firebombs and beat a bodyguard unconscious in a brazen message of intimidation and pinpoint pressure on dissent.

The assault on Mahdi Karroubi’s five-story residence late Thursday — just hours before major state-backed rallies — displayed the growing tactics of trying to isolate and harass top opposition figures after relentless crackdowns appear to have driven protesters from the streets.

The 72-year-old Karroubi, a cleric and former parliament speaker, has been the most public protest leader in recent months — and has paid the price with repeated damage to his car and tense confrontations with backers of the Islamic state. But the latest backlash, described by a pro-reform website, was by far the most aggressive.

Mobs of hard-line militiamen — known as Basij — began breaking down the front door of Karroubi’s residence before being driven back by warning shots from guards, according to the Sahamnews website, which supports Iran’s pro-reform movement.

Karroubi was at home at the time, but was not injured, his son Hossein told The Associated Press.

Media restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities blocked journalists from reaching the site and independently verifying the accounts. A video posted on the Internet by a group backing the opposition showed smashed windows and graffiti on the walls and door panel of the house, located on a tree-lined street in north Tehran.

Hossein Karroubi said dozens of hard-liners — some on motorbikes — continued to damage the opposition leader’s home on Friday and that police were not responding to the scene. Some security cameras outside the building were torn down, he said.

“The reason for attacking my father is the challenge he raised against the centers of power,” another son, Taghi Karroubi, told the AP. “The attack was very harsh and we feared they wanted to kill (my father).”

The melee came after nearly a week of pro-government gatherings outside Karroubi’s home. The trigger for the assault apparently was to keep him from attending annual pro-Palestinian rallies on Friday and becoming a draw for opposition protesters. Last year, the event turned into street riots after tens of thousands of counter-protests staged marches claiming massive ballot fraud in the June 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

At the time, the momentum of the opposition rallies seemed formidable. Marchers openly denounced Ahmadinejad and his backers and tangled with Basij vigilantes, a paramilitary force aligned with the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

But authorities gradually began to reclaim the upper hand. The Revolutionary Guard gathered stronger and more mobile forces — including club-swinging Basij on motorbikes — while authorities conducted arrest sweeps and widely choked off the Internet and mobile phone messaging used to organize the protesters. Internet service was slow or inaccessible in Tehran on Friday.

The opposition has not held any street demonstrations since February and canceled plans for a rally on the anniversary of the election.

Security forces, meanwhile, have turned their attention to squeezing Karroubi and others in the opposition vanguard, including Green Movement head Mir Hossein Mousavi and former President Mohammad Khatami.

Karroubi’s car has been attacked and he has been jostled by angry crowds, including during a visit in June to visit a pro-reform cleric in the holy city of Qom, opposition websites reported.

Khatami — despite his elder statesman role — was barred from traveling to Japan in April to attend a conference on dialogue between cultures. Khatami’s former vice president and others in his government have been arrested on charges of trying to overthrow the Islamic system.

Mousavi has kept a lower profile recently than Karroubi. But Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was surrounded and mocked last week by a group of hard-liners, according to the Mousavi-backed website Kaleme.

Last week, opposition websites carried a copy of a purported government directive banning all Iranian newspapers and news agencies from mentioning the three pro-reform leaders or showing their pictures.

Mousavi condemned the attack on Karroubi’s home, saying it proved the government’s “enmity against Israel is an excuse” for attacking opposition figures. “Karroubi and figures like him and other freedom-seekers are the real enemies of authoritarians.”

Karroubi, meanwhile, was visited by well-wishers including Yasser Khomeini, a grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, according to Sahamnews.

Elsewhere in Tehran, Ahmadinejad addressed a rally for Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, which is used to both support Palestinians and condemn Israel. In his speech, Ahmadinejad said Israel and its supporters are too weak to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Israel, the United States and other nations believe Iran intends to develop atomic weapons under the cover of its civil nuclear power program. Iran denies that, saying its nuclear work is only for peaceful purposes.

The Iranian leader also dismissed the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks held in Washington this week, saying “the fate of Palestine will be decided in Palestine and through resistance and not in Washington.” Iran supports the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Meanwhile, Egypt canceled a visit by Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to protest comments in which he accused Arab leaders of betrayal for attending the new round of Mideast peace talks in Washington.

Mottaki had been scheduled to visit Cairo Monday for a meeting of Nonaligned Movement members.

Iran has an uneasy relationship with U.S.-allied Arab nations, which have watched Tehran’s growing influence in the Middle East with concern because of suspicions over its nuclear program and its support for radical Islamic groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II attended the talks in Washington.

Iran severed ties with Egypt after it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979 and provided asylum to Iran’s deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

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Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.