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Iran opposition energized by Montazeri funeral in Qom, say eyewitnesses

The death of Iran cleric Montazeri “is also a blessing – it brought people out again,” said an engineering student, one of hundreds of thousands who turned out. Eyewitnesses report pro-regime basiji and mourners in verbal clash inside Qom shrine.

By A special correspondent in Qom, and Scott PetersonStaff writer / December 21, 2009

Mourners attend the funeral of top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, as opposition supporters chanted anti-government slogans in Iran's holy city of Qom on Monday.

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Qom, Iran; and Istanbul, Turkey

As host to the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s holy city of Qom today witnessed pro-government vigilantes directly taking on key opposition leaders – with violence and with stealth; reformist activists reinvigorated by a reason to take to the streets again; and attempts by the regime to dismiss the importance of Iran’s chief clerical dissident.

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Mourners in the funeral procession for Montazeri expressed both regret for the loss of the spiritual mentor of Iran’s opposition “Green Movement” and confidence that his legacy would endure.

Chant leaders led a crowd of hundreds of thousands that spilled beyond one of the most sacred shrines in Iran. Among them was a 19-year-old engineering student, who covered his face with a surgical mask to avoid being identified.

Montazeri’s “demise, although very hard for us, is also a blessing – it brought people out again,” said this student from Tehran. “Hardship and sadness usually unite people. That is what happened for this revolution in the early days; people used the sadness of Moharram to unite themselves against the Shah.”

Montazeri’s last wish: ‘to end this dictatorship’

That “sadness of Moharram” is upon Iranians again, as Montazeri’s death falls early in the annual 10-day period – the beginning of the holy month of Moharram – during which Shiites mourn the death in 680 AD of their most hallowed saint, Imam Hossein.

Protesters in Qom have come to this moment after fighting running street battles for weeks in June – and on every key date since then – in response to the disputed election that reinstalled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term. The street battles left scores dead, thousands arrested, and a trail of claims of rape and torture in detention centers.

“Rape, atrocities, an unworthy government,” mourners chanted in Qom Monday. “This is the month of blood, Yazid will fall,” sounded another, referring to the 7th-century caliph who killed Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Today, Yazid is seen as the symbol of evil, and of every oppressive ruler.

“The silence of each Muslim is treason against the Quran,” rang out another slogan. And yet another: “Montazeri’s last wish, an end to this dictatorship.”

Dissident cleric had ‘immunity’ that enabled him to challenge regime

The sight of the aluminum coffin on the top of a truck, all draped in black and inching its way through the sea of mourners, had a sobering effect.

“This is a great loss for the Green Movement, and it will hurt us greatly,” said a female political science student from Tehran. “Montazeri was a great influence among the clergy. Because of his status, he had a sort of immunity which allowed him to at least mention some of the most dangerous issues.”

One middle-aged cleric, also in the crowd, said the timing – and its religious significance – would mean that Montazeri’s decades-long commitment to combating authoritarian rule would not be forgotten.

“The fact that this happened in Moharram means that his name will forever be remembered,” said the cleric. “Moharram is when the Oppressed won over the Oppressor. This will show and prove [that] again.”

Montazeri opposed the June election results as fraudulent, and spoke out against the absolute rule of the supreme theologian – a post in the Islamic republic that Montazeri did much to create. “He was a critic. He started his criticism when he was powerful, not when he was weak,” said the cleric. “He could have remained silent and received benefits from that silence, but he didn’t. He was always siding with the righteous and not the powerful.”

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