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Iran: Who Are The Vigilantes Fighting Pro-Reform Protesters?

Pro-reform protesters in Iran haven't just got the police and security forces to worry about. They also face beatings from motorcycle-riding hard-liners wielding clubs and chains. Who are these so-called plainclothes vigilantes?

Prague, 17 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sometimes they arrive on motorbikes, sometimes in cars and vans. They wield clubs and chains, or occasionally guns. These groups of young men have become a common sight on the streets of Tehran this week, beating demonstrators protesting against the country's leaders.

They belong to Ansar-i Hizbullah, a plainclothes, volunteer Islamic militia that suppresses dissent and upholds strict codes of behavior. They perhaps don't meet the strict definition of vigilantes -- really a group that takes the law into its own hands without any authority other than its own.

But if Ansar are taking orders, it's not entirely clear from whom. The militants pledge loyalty to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and they're believed to have ties to senior clerics.

Ali Ansari, director of Durham University's Center for Iranian Studies in England, told RFE/RL: "The major source of trouble are the Islamic vigilantes around the Ansar-i Hizbullah, the 'helpers of the party of God.' And these are the real thugs; they're hired like mafia groups. An ayatollah has his gang of them and they go around with Kalashnikovs and sticks and beat people up."

It was Ansar-i Hizbullah militants who stormed a university dormitory during student unrest three years ago, a raid that left one student dead.

They don't just pop up to quell protests -- they also enforce strict codes of behavior, protecting what they see as Islamic values. And they are accused of more sinister activities too. Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Congress Research Service, told RFE/RL: "They've done their own independent activity cracking down on Western-style parties, people who are not following the Islamic customs in their private life in terms of parties, dinner parties, little illicit shops that sell goods that are maybe not Islamic, [like] tapes, movies -- they've been known to storm these type of things and raid them, even going after women who are not dressing what they consider to be properly. They have done a lot of different things, but putting down protests is certainly one of them. They've also been accused of doing assassinations and various physical intimidation of regime opponents."

Ansar-i Hizbullah are thought to number only several thousand, a hard-line fringe group that is distinct from -- but possibly overlaps with -- the much bigger Basij volunteer militia. While they don't appear to be short of funds, it is unclear who is financing their activities.

And if they have their uses, Durham's Ansari said they also pose a risk to the authorities. "One of the big problems is that the Ansar, their strategy is to provoke trouble. They want to go about beating up people, harassing people in order to create a sense of anarchy because then they think they can create a state of emergency. But the authorities actually don't want that, they want to keep things manageable. I think there are so many people in the establishment like [former President Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and others who also understand or recognize the danger in provoking a mass street protest, because if you provoke one you may actually provoke a revolutionary situation," Ansari said. He said that's why Khameini has called on the Ansar not to intervene in the protests.

Police have also detained some militants, and in some places have been preventing them from attacking protesters. A student association affiliated with the Basij has also distanced itself from them.