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Portrait of a veteran Iranian revolutionary

For the past half century, Zabihollah Bakhshi – a religious militant – has been center stage in nearly every Iranian fight or street protest.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2008

Dressed for a demo: When the camera comes out, Zabihollah Bakhshi dons a his protest "uniform."

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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KARAJ, Iran

The white-bearded Iranian zealot knows the power of theater. For more than half a century, Zabihollah Bakhshi has been front and center in nearly every revolutionary action or pro-regime rally.

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In Iran, he's an institution, a political cheerleader and professional militant. His battle scars include multiple wounds received in the Iraq-Iran war. His enduring and high-profile persona is a useful tool for hard-liners in Iran. It's also a window into the total commitment that remains – in some quarters, at least – for the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"In war, propaganda and spirit are the most important things," says Haji Bakhshi, as he is known here. "If they tell me right now that we must go for a protest, I will take off these slippers and run bare-footed! Because it's our revolution. Because it's our country. A person who does not love his country, who does not love his nation, is not human."

Bakhshi is proud of his decades of activism, even to the point of killing, he says, in the name of national pride and religious conviction. He's also been a vigilante. A 1996 report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, described Mr. Bakhshi as a "strong-arm leader" who took part in the "violent activities of groups of religious zealots" that "targeted government critics and free-thinkers of all kinds, burning property, beating individuals and disrupting gatherings."

Today, his focus is the threat from Washington, where the Bush administration has not ruled out military strikes to stop progress of Iran's nuclear programs.

"Let Mr. Bush know this ... if they attack, we shall attack them from land and sky," says Bakhshi. "When there are people like me – and 20 million other [volunteers] – who are ready to tie explosives to ourselves and go with fast-moving boats toward the American military ships, the people of the US do not like such a thing."

While certainly a vast overestimate of the number of suicide-ready devotees, Bakhshi's defiant worldview is not uncommon. It's rooted in Iran's history of victimization and "war stories" common to many devout Iranians.

Trusted by the regime, Bakhshi became active along the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, driving a vehicle with large speakers to boost morale of the soldiers with nationalist and religious chants. A well-known photo shows Bakhshi racing with a blanket to put out flames engulfing his vehicle after it was hit with an Iraqi tank shell, killing Bakhshi's passengers.

"He played nationalist songs of honor and power, to make people feel better," says Ali Rajabi, the Iranian photographer to took the famous shot. He recalls feeling the heat of the burning car, but says that Bakhshi ignored it as he repeatedly rushed in to try to save his two passengers.

"They were men of action, not just men of words ... [who] sit far back from the front lines," recounts Mr. Rajabi. "Near the border, the Iraqis knew this car."

Portraits of those who died in the car – along with those of Bakhshi's son and brother lost in the war – hang today in Bakhshi's house, in what he calls the "room of love." But two days after that incident, Bakhshi was back at the front to disprove reports that he also had perished in the fire.

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