Ayatollah's funeral turns into huge anti-government rally

TENS of thousands of mourners turned the funeral of Iran's leading dissident cleric into an anti-government protest yesterday.

As the crowds chanted "death to the dictator", security forces clamped down in the holy city of Qom where massive crowds had streamed in for the funeral rites.

One opposition website reported clashes outside the home of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died on Sunday aged 87.

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His death put the Iranian authorities in a difficult spot. On the one hand, they were obliged to pay their respects to one of the patriarchs of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; on the other, they were worried memorial events could become new rallying points for opposition demonstrations.

The ayatollah had broken with Iran's clerical leadership and become a vehement critic, denouncing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling the crackdown after the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 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 clerical seminaries.

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

Footage posted on the internet showed massive crowds chanting in the streets of Qom and beating their chests in a sign of mourning, as the body was carried around the city's main shrine several times then taken to a nearby cemetery for burial alongside his son, who died in the early days of the Islamic Revolution.

Security forces clashed with mourners shouting slogans outside the ayatollah's house in Qom, and some protesters threw stones, an opposition website reported.

It said an unspecified number of mourners had been arrested.

Thousands of mourners also marched in the cleric's home town of Najafabad, near the central city of Isfahan.

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The authorities are concerned that Ayatollah Montazeri's death could set off a string of opposition protests linked to his funeral rites. Traditionally, memorial ceremonies are also held seven days after a death, and that seventh-day homage will fall on one of the most important Shiite religious days, marking the martyrdom of a revered seventh-century leader – giving even more fuel for a rally.

Ayatollah Montazeri was one of the leaders of the revolution and helped draft the nation's new constitution, based on a concept called velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamic jurists. That concept enshrined a political role for Islamic clerics in the new system.

But a deep ideological rift soon developed. He envisaged the Islamic experts as advisers to the government, who should not have outright control to rule themselves. He was also among those clerics who believed the power of the supreme leader came from the people, not God.

But Ayatollah Khomeini and his circle of clerics took a different view and consolidated absolute power. Ayatollah Montazeri broke with the regime in the 1980s after claiming the ruling clerics had violated the ideals of the revolution by taking absolute power rather than serving as advisers to political leaders. He spent five years under house arrest and had only a minor role in political affairs after being released in 2003.

But the outrage after June's disputed presidential election gave him a new voice that resonated with a younger generation. His most pivotal moments came in the summer when he denounced the "despotic" tactics and "crimes" of the ruling clerics – a bold step that encouraged protesters to break taboos about criticism of Supreme Leader Khamenei.

In demonstrations earlier this month, students again shouted "death to the dictator" and burned pictures of the supreme leader – an act that was almost unthinkable just a few months ago.

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

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


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MILITARY force would have only limited effect in stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons but must remain an option, the head of the United States's Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday.

Tehran shows no signs of backing down over what the US and other countries say is its drive for a nuclear bomb, Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US military officer, told his staff in an annual assessment of the nation's risks and priorities.

In the past few years the US had all but ruled out an attack on Iran's known nuclear facilities as being too risky, citing the backlash it might unleash.

However, Mr Mullen wrote: "My belief remains that political means are the best tools to attain regional security and that military force will have limited results. However, should the president call for military options, we must have them ready."

Iran insists it is developing nuclear energy, not weapons.

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