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Popular dissident Hossein Ali Montazeri mourned in Iran

Pillar of the Islamic Revolution became a harsh and defiant critic of the republic. He was a staunch defender of the Iran's current opposition movement.

December 21, 2009|By Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

Reporting from Tehran — Thousands of supporters of Iran's most senior dissident cleric marched through streets in his hometown and descended upon the country's main theological center Sunday to mourn his passing just days before the climax of a politically charged religious commemoration.

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a pillar of the Islamic Revolution three decades ago who became a staunch defender of the nation's current opposition movement, died late Saturday of complications from advanced age, diabetes and asthma, his doctor told state television. He was 87.

His death could further galvanize the protest movement that grew out of disputed presidential elections in June but that has been driven as much by raw emotion over perceived injustice as by rational political calculation.

Montazeri was an important figure in Iran's post-revolutionary period, a widely respected and creative Islamic jurist and political theorist. He had been slated to take over as the country's supreme leader before a falling-out with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, over killings of political prisoners in the late 1980s. Montazeri became a harsh and defiant critic of the revolution he helped create.

"Ayatollah Montazeri will be remembered in the history of Iran as brave, open-minded and willing to say the truth at any time, even when encountering danger," Fazel Maybodi, a mid-ranking reformist cleric and a well-known disciple of Montazeri, said in a telephone interview from the city of Qom, the country's religious center.

"He was a faithful source of emulation in Islamic jurisprudence who initiated a huge change in the mentality and attitudes of the senior clergy," Maybodi said. "He braved all threats and dangers to honor his commitment as a senior cleric."

His death comes as the opposition prepares to hold protests to coincide with the emotionally charged Muharram ceremonies marking the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and a highly revered figure within Iran's majority Shiite Muslim faith.

Adding to the potential for unrest, the religiously significant seventh day after Montazeri's death will fall on Ashura, the often-frenzied culmination of Muharram, when Shiites pour into the streets to beat their chests and weep in ritual mourning of Imam Hussein.

Opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi declared today a national day of mourning and called on Iranians to come to Qom, where the ayatollah died and is scheduled to be laid to rest during the day at the shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh, the second holiest site in Iran.

A witness in Qom this morning described thousands of people crowded along and around the small street outside Montazeri's home, preparing to take part in the funeral march to the city's shrine.

"Oh Hossein, Mir-Hossein!" the mourners chanted, in support of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Mousavi, who had arrived at the late cleric's residence Sunday night.

Already on Sunday the roads leading south out of Tehran were clogged with traffic as opposition supporters and others headed to the shrine city to pay their respects. Residents and students in the city of 1 million began text-messaging and e-mailing friends in the capital to invite them to stay at their homes overnight.

Traffic to Qom early this morning was heavier than normal. A witness near the city's shrine described a massive police presence, but no boisterous demonstrations as of 9 a.m.

The reformist website said dozens of opposition supporters had been arrested en route to the funeral.

Clerics and seminary students crammed inside and outside Montazeri's home to extend condolences, two clerics said by telephone Sunday.

On the restive campuses of Tehran, students gathered to mourn Montazeri, according to witnesses and videos posted to the Internet. The main market and schools of Montazeri's hometown, Najafabad, shut down as thousands holding black flags marched through the streets.

"Dictator! Dictator!" they chanted, according to video posted to the Internet. "Montazeri's path will continue."

Security forces spread out along Tehran's main squares and were reportedly swarming Qom to head off any unrest. At least one student of Montazeri, Ahmad Qabel, was arrested en route to the shrine city, a reformist website reported.

State-controlled television carried minimal coverage of his death while reformist websites inundated the Internet with photographs of mourning ceremonies, minute-by-minute developments and remembrances. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader, offered his condolences to Montazeri's family while pointing out the key role the cleric had played in creating the ongoing rift within Iran's establishment.

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