- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

TEHRAN (AP) | Iranian security forces beat protesters in central Tehran on Saturday while hard-line activists disrupted a speech by the country’s moderate former president, reformist Web sites said, raising tensions ahead of opposition rallies expected during a key religious mourning ritual.

Several injuries were reported in Saturday’s unrest, which came a day before the Shi’ite Muslim mourning ceremony of Ashoura. Opposition activists have held a series of anti-government protests since the death of a dissident cleric last week, and other rallies are expected during Sunday’s Ashoura rituals.

Last Sunday’s death of the 87-year-old Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a sharp critic of Iran’s leaders, has given a new push to opposition protests, which have endured despite a heavy security crackdown since disputed presidential elections in June.

The Rah-e-Sabz Web site said forces, including the elite Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basijis, used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse demonstrators. The forces also broke the windows of cars that were honking horns in protest. It said protests occurred in at least three areas of the capital.

The report could not be independently confirmed because the Iranian government has banned foreign media from covering opposition protests.

In other unrest, about 50 plainclothes hard-line activists interrupted a speech by the popular former President Mohammad Khatami and beat some in the audience, the pro-reform Salaam News Web site said. It reported several injuries, though further details weren’t immediately available.

The attackers chanted slogans in support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the site said.

Mr. Khatami was speaking at the former residence of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s 1979 revolution, in north Tehran.

Iran is marking the first 10 days of the Islamic month of Moharram, a time of mourning rituals for a revered Shi’ite saint.

The period culminates Sunday with Ashoura, when Shi’ites beat themselves with fists and whips to mark the anniversary of the seventh-century death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, who was killed in a battle near Karbala. The day also coincides with the seventh day since the death of Ayatollah Montazeri, who was Iran’s most senior dissident cleric. More memorials and possible protests are expected.

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

Violence erupted Wednesday when thousands tried to gather for a Montazeri memorial at a mosque in the central city of Isfahan, 200 miles south of Tehran. They were met by a large force of riot police and Basijis, and more than 50 people were arrested.

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