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Crush Kills 8 at Rite for Khomeini

June 06, 1989|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — Hundreds of thousands of Iranians struggled for a last glimpse of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as he lay in state Monday, and in the wild expressions of mass grief, at least eight people were crushed to death and an estimated 500 others were injured.

In temperatures of more than 100 degrees, the crowd of mourners, estimated by some officials at 2 million, jammed into Moussalam Square, a huge area reserved for prayer meetings in north Tehran. Weeping, wailing and chanting, they pushed forward to see the body of their spiritual and temporal leader, who lay on a makeshift catafalque--boxes draped with cloth and topped by an air-conditioned glass covering.

The body of Khomeini, whose death was announced Sunday morning, more than 10 years after he returned from exile in France following the revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was enveloped in a white shroud, with his familiar black turban resting on his chest.

Authorities appealed for calm, but their pleas went unheeded by the mourners, almost all of them dressed in black--shirts and trousers for the men, long chadors or veils on the women.

Many of the male mourners beat their breasts rhythmically or slapped their heads in grief. This added to the day's sense of frenzy, and at one point, as the mob pressed forward, some in front were trampled underfoot by those pushing from behind.

Passed Back by Crowd

The bodies of the dead, as well as those who were injured, were placed on stretchers and passed hand to hand over the heads of the crowd. Firefighters sprayed water from hoses to cool the overheated, exhausted faithful.

Military helicopters clattered overhead, enabling VIPs to get a glimpse of the body without having to brave the chaos on the ground.

All day, loudspeakers blared readings from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

At nightfall, the vigil continued by candlelight, with the limp bodies of those who had collapsed being passed back by the crowd every few minutes to the ambulances and medical teams waiting on the edge of the square.

Even greater crowds are expected today when Khomeini's body will be taken to the Cemetery of the Martyrs for burial. The funeral had at first been set for Monday, but President Ali Khamenei, the ayatollah's religious successor, ordered the ceremony delayed for a day.

The prayer park where Khomeini's body lay in state overlooks the city, in the brow of the Alborz Mountains, which still bear streaks of snow. It is not far from the modest quarters Khomeini maintained in north Tehran, once the neighborhood of Iran's wealthy business and governing class.

2-Day Mourning Period

The capital was shut down for a two-day period of mourning. In most of the city, traffic was light, but an enormous traffic jam occurred near the square. Thousands of mourners arrived in cars and buses to pay their respects, and many double- and triple-parked. Thousands of others traveled on foot along the main north-south highway, which then had to be closed to traffic.

Police wore black armbands, and black flags flew from the antennas of official motorcycles.

Despite their presence in large numbers, the police seemed helpless in handling the huge crowds, and congestion grew by the hour. The state television carried the mourning's scenes and played dirge-like music throughout the day.

Khomeini's son, Ahmed, read on state radio the first pages of the ayatollah's political testament, which is thought to spell out his wishes for how Iran should be governed. The section he read made no reference to the succession. It called for national unity and warned against the possibility of U.S. plotting.

It also referred to King Fahd, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, as a traitor to God and said the rulers of the Soviet Union, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq are tyrants.

"May God's curse be upon them," the testament said.

The mourning is taking place against a backdrop of political maneuvering over the succession. The ayatollah, who installed a fundamentalist Muslim regime after he returned from exile, never drew up a proper line of succession among his followers. President Khamenei, who has been named to take up Khomeini's role as spiritual leader, is regarded as an interim political leader.

In a statement to state television Monday, Khamenei said: "We hope temporarily to be able to fill the leadership. . . . The new terms of the constitution are currently under review."

Presidental elections are scheduled for August, and a leading contender is Speaker of Parliament Hashemi Rafsanjani.

After the cease-fire in the war with Iraq last summer, Rafsanjani appeared to be inclined to chart a practical course for Iran, emphasizing reconstruction. But Khomeini suddenly fastened onto the issue of a novel he deemed blasphemous--Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses"--and he ordered the author's death.

Rafsanjani went along with the edict, as did Prime Minister Hussein Moussavi and those members of the Cabinet who favor stronger government control in all sectors.

The Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri was Khomeini's designated successor as spiritual leader until he was forced to step down in March, and it is not clear where Montazeri stands now.

Also not clear is the position of Khomeini's son, Ahmed. Some think that Khomeini wanted his son to succeed him as both religious and political leader, but the ayatollah never went so far as to designate him as such.

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