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Ashura Violence Marks Turning Point For Opposition

An opposition supporter stands near a police motorcycle set on fire during clashes with security forces in Tehran on December 27.
An opposition supporter stands near a police motorcycle set on fire during clashes with security forces in Tehran on December 27.
As Iranians gathered to celebrate the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura on December 27, Tehran witnessed some of its worst violence since just after the disputed June 12 presidential contest that plunged the Islamic republic into crisis.

Some Iran observers believe the events, in which clashes between opposition protesters and security forces resulted in protesters’ deaths and injuries on both sides, mark a turning point in the months-long political crisis.

Violence had been seen before; the opposition estimates that 72 people had been killed prior to the December 27 violence, and early protests included a fire-bomb attack on a Basij militia post. But the past violence was weighted heavily on the side of the authorities, while the opposition for the most part employed civil disobedience through peaceful rallies.

Ashura is usually marked by religious gatherings and marches in which people beat their chests and weep in memory of the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, but those scenes were replaced this year with video images showing street battles that transformed central Tehran into a war zone.

Witnesses told RFE/RL that in the course of the Ashura events, security forces shot directly at people and attacked them with batons and tear gas. They described chaos in the streets and blood on the sidewalks, and reported fire and heavy smoke in some parts of Tehran. Instead of religious slogans, protesters chanted against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with some calling him a murderer.

Unprecedented Violence

One young Iranian man, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said, "It wasn't a Green Ashura, it was a red Ashura -- a bloody Ashura."

Eight protesters were reported killed as a result of the violence. Among them was 35-year-old Ali Musavi, the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, who finished second to incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 vote.

WATCH: A video from the December 27 clashes in Vali Asr Square in Tehran shows a protester who has been seriously injured in the clashes. (Warning: graphic images)

Reports emerged today that the authorities were continuing to round up dissenters. After Iranian police said they had detained about 300 people, an opposition website, "Parlemannews," claimed today that seven prominent oppositionists were among them, including three aides to Mir Hossein Musavi and prominent human rights activists Emad Baghi and Ebrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister.

Ali Keshtgar, a Paris-based political activist, tells Radio Farda that the violence seen on Ashura is unprecedented in Iran's modern history, and that the clerical establishment has undermined its religious claims.

The violence was carried out “by an establishment that claims it is a supporter of religious tradition," Keshtgar says. "We had never witnessed in the past 100 years a government shooting at people on Ashura. This government did it."

Amateur video captured by citizen journalists shows demonstrators fighting riot police and security forces, detaining them, and even setting their uniforms, automobiles, and motorcycles on fire.

A Tehran-based journalist, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said the protesters' use of violence was significant.

Protesters "stood against the repressive forces and plainclothes agents and they demonstrated that they have the ability to confront them and even make them retreat. This is, I think, the new message of the Green movement," the journalist said. "I hope that those who are concerned about the country listen to this message and prevent more bloodshed."

Limited Options For The Regime

Keshtgar believes there are now two options facing the clerical establishment. "Khamenei can either retreat in the face of people's demands, or the Islamic establishment will move toward collapse," he says.

Keshtgar believes that the Ashura protests in Tehran -- and several other cities, including Qom, Isfahan, Najafabad, and Shiraz -- demonstrate that the opposition movement will not retreat in the face of violence.

"The policy of repression of the Islamic republic has failed," he says.

Tehran-based national religious activist Morteza Kazemiam, however, warns that the establishment appears equally determined to step up its crackdown.

"Unfortunately, it appears that the extremist [wing] in the establishment has the upper hand and is not ready to submit to the demands of the people," Kazemiam says.

As the crisis continues, parallels are increasingly being drawn with the events and protests three decades ago that led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the fall of the Shah Reza Shah Pahlavi.

On the evening of December 27, opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, a founding father of the Islamic Revolution who ran as a candidate in the June presidential vote, said that even the shah respected Ashura.

"What's happened to us when the establishment spills blood on Ashura, and sends a group of savage individuals to confront the people?" Karrubi wrote in a message posted on opposition websites.

Radio Farda broadcasters Elaheh Ravanshad and Ruzbeh Bolhari contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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