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.
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"The guys [Iranian soldiers] had lost their spirit.... Radio Baghdad had announced that they had killed Haji Bakhshi," he recalls. "I went to the other world," Bakhshi says he told Saddam Hussein, "and now I have come back to take you with me again!"Skip to next paragraph
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The septuagenarian greets a visitor to his farm in Karaj, 30 miles west of Tehran, wearing a cast on his left hand that is held in place with a sling made of the distinctive scarf of the Basiji militia, the ideological "volunteer" force formed after the revolution to fight Iraq in the 1980s.
Bakhshi broke his hand when he fell off his truck during a major Tehran rally to mark the 29th anniversary of the revolution last month. Security guards for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked that his vehicle be moved, and the driver panicked and hit the brake hard, causing Bakhshi to tumble.
But the injured hand is only the latest "battle scar" in a life of defiance – and violence – that began during World War II. When he was just 9, he says, he saw a British military officer kill one of his friends. Incensed, the boy told his local ayatollah: "I am going to kill him."
Bakhshi figured out how he would avenge his friend after seeing American troops using dynamite to kill fish in the river. He dove in and threw the fish out to them, eventually making friends with the soldiers. After a month, he had won their trust enough to steal two sticks of dynamite – which he says he then stuck beneath the vehicle of the British officer.
The explosion killed two men, recounts Bakhshi, the first of many acts of violent resistance. He joined an underground Islamic group and spent a day in prison for riots surrounding a CIA-engineered coup in 1953. Years later, when he tried to deliver explosives to fellow loyalists of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 revolution, Bakhshi found his car being chased in Tehran by agents of Shah Reza Pahlavi's SAVAK secret police.
Bakhshi got away, after throwing a brick of cash out the window, which created a swarm of people that slowed his SAVAK pursuers. "Who put this in my mind? God," says Bakhshi, relishing the story and its implication of divine protection.
He was protected again in 1987, he says, when he helped spark a pro-Khomeini riot during the hajj (pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia. Pretending to be a blind beggar, Bakhshi illegally hid a flag under his clothes, and images of Khomeini in a canister meant to spray scented water. More than 400 died in the riot, including, a Saudi soldier he says he bludgeoned to death with chunks of concrete because soldiers "were killing people."
"They wanted to shoot me here in the head, but God made the bullet come here," says Bakhshi, pointing to the scar on his right thigh.
Violence in Iran has dissipated in recent years as hard-liners have taken control. But Bakhshi and militants like him still find plenty to get angry about. Bakhshi can be seen in photos of a violent protest outside the Denmark Embassy in Tehran in February 2006. The protest was against cartoons published in a Danish newspaper that were widely seen as an insult to Islam. Bakhshi can be seen with hands covered in blood, making prints on a wall.
"We won the [Iran-Iraq] war with faith and spirit, not weapons. I killed, captured [soldiers] and was active with the morale [boosting] thing," says Bakhshi.
"Nothing is more important than spirit in the field of war. Because if there is not spirit in the front line, everyone will retreat."