- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

They have become the face of repression since Iran’s disputed June 12 elections, but the auxiliary security force known as the Basij once played a heroic role.

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, volunteers as young as 13 in the Basij-e Mostazafan, or “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” walked through minefields to defend their country against the invading forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

With plastic keys around their necks promising immediate entry to heaven if they died, they formed a human wave that shielded more experienced soldiers.

In the years that followed, however, the Basij have become the enforcers of the Islamic republic, charged with putting down protests and policing behavior and dress.

Since anti-government demonstrations erupted after allegations of massive fraud in Iranian presidential elections, “the Basij are everywhere. In the streets, in the newspapers, on television,” said Mohsen Javani, a high school student in Tehran.

Protests have dwindled in the past few days since the deaths of more than 200 demonstrators and the arrests of several hundred opposition figures, said spokesmen for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Eyewitness reports and videos sent by Iranians through social network sites have shown Basij members on motorcycles beating protesters.

In an apparent effort to save lives, Mr. Mousavi on Friday said he would seek permits for demonstrations in the future. But on Saturday, he repeated his demand that the entire ballot be annulled, saying a proposed partial recount “will not remove ambiguities,” according to a statement posted on his Web site, Reuters news agency reported.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose purported landslide re-election is in dispute, criticized President Obama for condemning the violent crackdown on demonstrators.

“You should know that if you continue, the response of the Iranian nation will be strong,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech to members of Iran’s judiciary, the Associated Press reported. “The response of the Iranian nation will be crushing. The response will cause remorse.”

Many Iranians suspect that a member of the Basij fatally shot Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman whose death on the street in Tehran on June 20 has become the iconic image of Iran’s pro-democracy movement.

Arash Hejazi, an Iranian doctor who said he tried to save Miss Agha-Soltan, told the British Broadcasting Corp. last week that he was at the scene and protesters saw a member of the Basij on a motorcycle nearby who was shouting, “I didn’t want to kill her.”

Dr. Hejazi said the protesters took the shooter’s photo and identity cards but let him go, wire agencies reported.

Iranian authorities have offered a variety of theories about who was responsible, from the CIA to the demonstrators themselves. Iranian state media first said the bullet that hit the young woman was of “foreign” origin. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a pro-regime cleric, said Friday at noon prayers that the protesters themselves killed Miss Agha-Soltan.

Mir Ali Mohammadi, press secretary at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, earlier told The Washington Times that Iranian police “have captured all people engaged in killing Ms. Agha-Soltan.”

He said that she was the apparent victim of a coordinated scenario in a propaganda war against Iran and that “a serious investigation into this unfortunate event is continuing.”

He did not, however, identify anyone arrested in the killing.

Mr. Mohammadi said “Western propaganda” was trying to defame the Basij to “undermine such a strong defensive force.” During the Iran-Iraq war, “they defended Iran just as the Kamikaze defended Japan,” he said.

For many Iranians, however, the Basij have evolved since that war into Iran’s unofficial morality police, responsible for enforcing Islamic dress codes, questioning couples about their marital status and raiding mixed-gender parties.

They also have been used in the past to clamp down on protesters, including students and women’s rights advocates.

“They are very devout, with strong conviction that what they are defending is so important that they are willing to die and kill their own brothers, sisters and neighbors,” said an Iranian-American protester in Tehran who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ahmad.

To some of the lower-class youths who join the organization, “it’s like [being] a glorified Boy Scout,” he said.

There is another reason young Iranians become members of the Basij: money.

“We are getting paid 200,000 toman [about $200] a day by the government,” a member of the group said in an e-mail made available to The Times. “We are being instructed to go into the streets and hit people, everyone and anyone who is out, until they can no longer get up. We are being fed lunch and dinner and given rooms to sleep in at night in undisclosed locations.”

The Basij member, who asked not to be named to avoid government retribution, repeated a claim heard frequently from Iranians in recent days that members of Iran-backed Arab militant groups have also been deployed against demonstrators.

“We are not alone,” the Basij member said. “There are Arabs among us, but they are getting paid more than we are. They are being put up in hotels, and they have different weapons than we do.”

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the Basij to safeguard the 1979 Iranian revolution he led. It has taken on new powers since Mr. Ahmadinejad, a former member of the group, became president in 2005. There are now Basij chapters in almost every Iranian city.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency has estimated that the Basij have 12.5 million members, 5 million of whom are women.

But a 2005 study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said there are 90,000 full-time members and 300,000 reservists, with several hundred thousand more available to be mobilized in emergencies such as earthquakes and other natural disasters.

A former member of the Basij, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid reprisal from the Iranian government, told The Times that Basij volunteers “get no proper training or anything. Almost anyone can join; there is no pre-screening.”

Their motorbikes have become their trademark, allowing them to maneuver easily through Tehrans gridlocked traffic on their way to suppress riots, where they have been reportedly chanting, “The blood that runs through my veins is a gift to our leaders,” the former member said.

Human Rights Watch said Saturday that some members of the Basij have begun raiding homes and beating residents in an attempt to stop people from going to their roofs to chant “God is Great” at night, a protest that hearkens back to the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Still, some Iranians describe civil interactions with the Basij.

“They don’t have the peoples respect, so they demand it with force,” Ahmad said. “People think they are uneducated and low class, but I’ve encountered some that are really respectful - the ones not fighting, the ones monitoring the roads and the flow of traffic.”

A key indicator of whether Iranian democracy advocates will succeed may be whether large numbers of Basij refuse to continue repressing demonstrations. So far, however, that does not appear to be happening.

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