Iran: 20 years after Ayatollah Khomeini
Presidential campaign politics intrude on the anniversary of Islamic republic's founder.
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They were there to remember what to many was a divine loss – and recall the most frenzied funeral in Iran's living memory.
Gorban-Ali Baqrzadeh's grief back then carried him 25 miles, barefoot.
He arrived to a scene of millions of black-clad Iranians beating their chests, throwing dirt on themselves, and passing out in the extreme heat – despite fire-trucks dousing the churning masses.
Dozens died in the melee, thousands were injured, and in the crush even Ayatollah Khomeini's body had to be retrieved, prepared again, and brought back by helicopter.
"We cried," recalls Mr. Baqrzadeh, his beard now white, but his devotion undiminished. "We cried a lot for this person who was an exceptional, very religious person, who was so close to God, and worked for the success of Islam."
The 1979 revolution wrought by Khomeini, he says, "was a light that shone across all the world, under the flag of Islam. He was the savior of the oppressed."
Presidential campaign intrudes
Baqrzadeh was among the thousands here Thursday, some walking for days to reenact their grief two decades ago. But this time – with the June 12 presidential election looming – the event took on a decidedly political air.
It was as much an anniversary as a show-of-force by supporters of Iran's fiery archconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Soldiers search the men entering the shrine, and stand on scaffolding to announce that no green scarves or ribbons – the campaign color of Mr. Ahmadinejad's top opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi – would be permitted inside.
Campaign posters of Mr. Mousavi have been defaced while portraits of Iran's current and past "supreme leaders" on the same posters are untouched.
Baqrzadeh says that he's "100 percent" for Ahmadinejad, as other anniversary pilgrims who gather tightly around nod their agreement. "My heart says so, too, because [Ahmadinejad] has the outlook of the Imam [Khomeini]. He has a spiritual way, and continues the way of the Leader and understands the oppressed."
The Iranians at this commemoration were largely from the populist president's natural constituency of Iran's legions of pious poor. They are veterans of the Iraq-Iran war, and among the firmest believers, still, in Iran's revolution.
There were some Mousavi supporters present too, but they were quickly surrounded when they stopped to speak.
"We don't like the way [Ahmadinejad] looks," says Amir, an 18-year-old student with gel in his hair and a green headband. "All the young people are for Mousavi because we want freedom."
That "freedom" was a key slogan of the 1979 revolution, and one that the more conservative crowd at the shrine Thursday said was abundant in the Islamic Republic, as far as they were concerned.