- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates | Tens of thousands of Iranian mourners turned the funeral procession of the country’s most senior dissident cleric into an anti-government protest Monday, chanting “death to the dictator” and slogans in support of the opposition amid heavy security.

Giant crowds filled major streets, beating their chests in mourning, waving banners in the green colors of the opposition and shouting denunciations of Iran’s rulers as Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri’s body was carried to a shrine in Iran’s theological center of Qom.

Some mourners clashed briefly with security forces, throwing stones, and hard-line pro-government militiamen charged some protesters until police held them back, opposition Web sites said. The militiamen tore down mourning banners and ripped to pieces posters of Ayatollah Montazeri near his home, the Hammihan Web site reported. Iranian authorities have barred foreign media from covering the rites.

The death of the cleric on Sunday, at the age of 87, put Iranian authorities in a difficult spot. They were obliged to pay respects to one of the patriarchs of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the one-time heir apparent to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

But officials also worried that the mourning rites could give a new push to opposition protests, particularly because they coincide with a time of traditional rallies commemorating a revered Shi’ite martyr. Traditionally, memorial ceremonies are also held seven days after a death. For Ayatollah Montazeri, the seventh-day homage will fall on the martyrdom of the Imam Hossein, a revered 7th century leader, providing even more fuel for public demonstrations.

Although he was a key leader in the revolution, Ayatollah Montazeri broke with Iran’s clerical leadership over the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s. He continued his criticism in recent years, denouncing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling the government crackdown after disputed June 12 presidential elections the work of a dictatorship.

Mourners shouted “death to the dictator” and other slogans in displays of anger against Iran’s ruling establishment during the procession in Qom, a city of shrines and seminaries about 60 miles south of Tehran, witnesses said. The witnesses spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.

Marchers held aloft black-rimmed portraits of Ayatollah Montazeri and green banners and wristbands in a show of support for the Green Movement of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who attended the funeral along with another prominent protest leader, Mehdi Karroubi.

Some reformist sites reported that Mr. Mousavi’s car was attacked as he left Qom and at least one member of his entourage was injured. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said one of Ayatollah Montazeri’s followers - a government critic, Ahmad Ghabel - was arrested while driving to Qom with his family to attend the funeral.

Thousands of mourners also marched in the cleric’s hometown of Najafabad, near the central city of Isfahan. Web footage showed crowds of men beating their chests and chanting, “Oppressed Montazeri, you are with God now.”

Women in black robes shouted, “Dictator, dictator, Montazeri is alive,” and “Montazeri, you who spoke the truth: Your path will be followed.”

State television made only a passing reference to Monday’s funeral and did not broadcast any images. It mentioned, however, that mourners were chanting anti-government slogans.

On Sunday, Ayatollah Khamenei praised Ayatollah Montazeri as a respected Islamic scholar but noted his falling-out with Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders of the revolution.

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