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After a long absence, pro-Mousavi cleric Rafsanjani to lead prayers

Former President Mohammad Khatami reportedly will also attend Iran's weekly keynote sermon Friday. The reformists' return to the event can be seen as a challenge to hard-liners or a sign of a truce.

July 13, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — A powerful cleric who has been a driving force behind the opposition movement challenging the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will lead Friday prayers this week after a two-month absence that was considered a sign of conflict within the Iranian establishment.

The semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency reported Sunday that Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will deliver the nation's weekly keynote religious sermon. Rafsanjani, who chairs powerful boards that oversee the office of the supreme leader and adjudicate disputes between government bodies, is the highest-profile backer of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who lost to Ahmadinejad in an election marred by allegations of vote-rigging.

Mousavi's Facebook page ( www.facebook.com/mousavi) said that he and his ally, former President Mohammad Khatami, would attend the prayer sermon. The Facebook page invited supporters who poured into the streets in recent weeks to attend, though Mousavi's website, Ghalamnews.ir, carried no such announcement.

News of the return of reformists and moderates to the official Friday prayer ceremony could serve as a challenge to hard-liners, led by supreme leader Ali Khamenei, on their home turf. Alternately, it could be a sign that the two sides have brokered a truce in their continuing political conflict. The election and subsequent demonstrations, attended by hundreds of thousands of Iranians, have led to numerous deaths and arrests.

On Sunday, news websites and human rights groups reported the killing of Sohrab Arabi, a 19-year-old who was apparently shot in the chest by government security forces or allied Basiji militiamen during a June 15 demonstration and had been missing since. His funeral is to be held today.

On Sunday, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, army chief of staff, blamed such deaths on unruly demonstrators.

"The rioters, armed with weapons from the U.S., Israel and England, opened fire on people in a futile attempt to accuse the police and the Basiji, with the cooperation of foreign media," Firouzabadi said in an open letter addressed to Imam Mahdi, a venerated Shiite Muslim who disappeared hundreds of years ago and whose messianic return, it is believed, will herald a new age.

"Our security forces never used any arms and they were beaten up, injured, martyred and crushed under wheels," he wrote in the letter, published in multiple news outlets. "On the other hand, the rioters mourned their fake dead."

Meanwhile, five Iranian officials described as diplomats by Tehran arrived in the capital Sunday after 30 months in U.S. custody in Iraq. They were detained in early 2007.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the Iranian government was entitled to sue the Bush administration "for this savage act."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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