- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009

TEHRAN | Security forces and hard-line militiamen assaulted opposition demonstrators as thousands gathered in the central city of Isfahan for a memorial commemorating Iran’s most senior dissident cleric.

The government’s crackdown showed signs of moving for the first time against clerics who support the opposition: Basij militiamen surrounded the house and office of two prominent religious figures, shouting slogans and breaking windows, opposition Web sites reported.

The death on Sunday of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri gave a new push to protests, which have endured despite a heavy security crackdown since disputed presidential elections in June.

His memorials have brought out not only the young, urban activists who filled the ranks of earlier protests, but also older, more religious Iranians. Tens of thousands marched in his funeral procession in the holy city of Qom on Monday, many chanting slogans against the government.

Wednesday’s violence erupted when thousands tried to gather for a memorial at a mosque in Isfahan, 200 miles south of Tehran. They were met by a large force of riot police and Basijis, which stormed the crowds, according to a witness and opposition Web sites.

Farid Salavati, an Isfahan resident who tried to attend the memorial, said baton-wielding riot police clubbed people on the head and shoulders, and kicked men and women alike, injuring dozens.

“They didn’t allow anybody to enter the mosque,” he said. “I saw at least two people with blood pouring down their face after being beaten by the Basijis.”

He said sporadic clashes continued into the early afternoon, and the memorial at the Sayed Mosque was canceled.

More than 50 people were arrested, including pro-opposition cleric Masoud Adib, who was expected to address the gathering, the Salaamnews and Parlemannews Web sites said.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Iranian authorities have banned foreign media from covering protests.

Security forces also surrounded the home of Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, who organized the memorial, several Web sites reported. The cleric was the chief Friday prayer leader in Isfahan until he resigned in 2002.

Meanwhile, for the past two nights, plainclothes hard-liners, thought to be Basijis, surrounded the office in Qom of another prominent pro-reform cleric, Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saanei, shouting “insulting slogans,” tearing up posters and breaking windows, the cleric’s office said in a statement carried on opposition Web sites.

The leadership may be particularly nervous about the fallout from Ayatollah Montazeri’s death because it came as Iran marks one of the most important periods on the Shiite religious calendar. The period culminates Sunday with Ashura, which commemorates the 7th-century martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, a revered Shi’ite figure who fought an unjust ruler.

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