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Iran Opposition: Mourn Slain Protesters

Iran's opposition leader asked authorities Sunday for permission to hold a memorial service for victims of last month's post-election unrest, including a young woman whose death was caught on video and became a symbol for protesters.

Iranian authorities have pressured the families of slain protesters not to mourn publicly out of fear the gatherings could spark the kind of demonstrations that followed the June 12 presidential vote, according to the opposition.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and fellow pro-reform presidential candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, sent a request to the Interior Ministry to hold a memorial service in Tehran's Mosalla mosque Thursday to commemorate the end of the 40-day mourning cycle for at least 10 people killed on June 20, Mousavi's top aide Ali Reza Beheshti told the Associated Press.

Hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters took to the streets following the election to protest hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed victory. Iranian security forces cracked down violently, and at least 20 protesters were killed during the unrest, according to police. Rights groups believe the number could be far greater.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say over all state matters, has demanded the opposition drop its claims that the election was marred by massive vote fraud. But Mousavi and his supporters have kept up the pressure by criticizing the state's harsh response and reaching out to top clerics for support.

One of those killed on June 20 was Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman shot to death on the sidelines of a Tehran demonstration. Her dying moments on the street were caught on a video viewed by millions on YouTube, and she became an icon in the opposition's struggle.

Mousavi and Karroubi attempted to assuage concerns that the requested memorial would spark additional unrest, saying it "will be held without any speeches and will be limited to the reciting of the Quran (the Muslim holy book) and moments of silence."

The government's concern about unrest has historical precedence. The deaths of protesters during the 1979 Islamic Revolution fueled a 40-day cycle of mourning marches, and shootings of mourners, that contributed to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Authorities allowed a close ally of conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei to hold a funeral in Tehran on Friday for his son, who was arrested during a protest on July 9, the pro-reform Web site reported. He was taken to a hospital two weeks later where he died from his injuries hours after being admitted, it said.

Rouhalmini's father, Abdul-Hossein, had scheduled to hold a memorial for his son Sunday but canceled the ceremony at the last minute without elaborating, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported. The Etemad-e-Melli newspaper reported earlier Sunday that Mousavi and Karroubi would attend the memorial, possibly raising fears it would turn into a demonstration.

A group of nearly 50 Mousavi supporters showed up at the site of Rouhalmini's planned memorial Sunday to protest against the government's crackdown on the opposition, said eyewitnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Many Iranian policemen were also at the scene, they said.

Dozens of protesters gathered in north Tehran on Saturday and chanted "death to the dictator" and "we want our vote back" before they were attacked and beaten by police and the Basij.

Police arrested "a few" of the protesters after the demonstration, Mehr quoted deputy police chief, Col. Mohsen Khancherli, as saying Sunday.

Witnesses told the AP that Saturday's demonstration was carried out in solidarity with people around the world who held coordinated protests to pressure Iran to end its violent crackdown on the opposition and release hundreds of people who are still being detained.

Also Saturday, 69 prominent opposition leaders, including Mousavi and Karroubi, appealed to top clerics in the holy city of Qom to help stop the government's violent post-election crackdown - reaching out to the one group that could go head-to-head with the country's supreme leader.

Tension following the election has not been limited to recriminations between hard-liners and reformists. Ahmadinejad caused an uproar among conservatives last week by defying an order by Khamenei to dismiss a controversial figure as his top deputy.

Although Ahmadinejad relented on Friday, the controversy over Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who angered conservatives last year when he made friendly comments toward Israel, continued to have repercussions at the highest levels of government.

Ahmadinejad dismissed four of his Cabinet ministers Sunday in an unusual move that seemed to be related to the dispute over Mashai, the Mehr news agency reported.

Several Cabinet officials, including Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, walked out of a meeting Wednesday to protest Ahmadinejad's appointment of Mashai as his first vice president, Mehr reported.In addition to Harandi, Ahmadinejad dismissed Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, Health minister Kamran Bagheri Lankarani and Labor minister Mohammad Jahromi, the agency reported.

Mehr said Ejehi's dismissal was also related to his opposition to Mashai, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son

Although Ahmadinejad agreed to abandon his quest to make Mashai his first vice president, he appointed him as his chief of staff Saturday, setting up another potential tussle with conservatives.

Prominent conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari called Ahmadinejad's decision to dismiss his ministers "unusual" and said "it seems he intends to cause tension in the country," according to Mehr.

Motahari said that if the dismissals were related to Mashai, "then the issue becomes personal, not related to the desirability of the country."

Meanwhile, a group of hard-line students asked Iranian lawmakers to summon Ahmadinejad to parliament to question why he waited almost a week to obey Khamenei's order to dismiss Mashai.

Revolutionary Guard Tightens Grip

The Revolutionary Guard tightened its already powerful hold over Iran during the post-election turmoil, raising alarm among some Iranians that it is transforming the Islamic Republic into a military state.

The elite force and an affiliated volunteer militia, the Basij, led the crackdown against street protesters who claim mass fraud in the June 12 election.

The Revolutionary Guard weighed in at key moments of the crisis.

Two days before the election, with the reformists' Western-style campaign at its zenith, the Guard warned it would crush any attempt at a popular "revolution." A few days after Khamenei admonished demonstrators in a Friday prayer sermon to stop protests or face the consequences, the Guard followed up with its sternest warning to prepare for a "revolutionary confrontation" if protesters take to the streets again. A harsh crackdown followed.

The Guard was created following the 1979 Islamic revolution as an ideological force to defend Iran's clerical rule and root out the enemies of the newly born Islamic Republic. The 120,000-strong force has its own ground, naval, air and missile units and is believed to be better armed and equipped than the far larger regular military.

On top of its enormous military power, the force in recent years has amassed a network of economic and political power extending to virtually every aspect of life in Iran. Now some fear it has gone beyond protecting the system to dominating it. Even Khamenei may have become overly dependent on the Guards, some experts say.

The Guard is also believed to be the vanguard for Iran's ties with militant groups abroad, providing training for Hezbollah in Lebanon and, the U.S. says, Shiite militants in Iraq. That has led Washington to brand the force as a supporter of terrorism.

Mousavi, who claims he won the presidential election, and other pro-reform leaders appealed to Iran's top Shiite religious figures over the weekend to speak out against the growing crackdown. They warned of "the spread of tyranny in the Islamic Republic system."

Last week, Mousavi warned Iranian society was becoming "more militarized" and being pushed into a "near coup d'etat atmosphere." He said security forces must adhere to the constitution to guarantee the voice of the people in decision-making.

But the Guard's power has been building for a long time and isn't likely to stop, Iran expert Frederic Tellier said.

"The current crisis is less a coup d'etat than the final phase of their conquest of power and a likely foretaste of a far more ruthless and systematic political purge to come," said Tellier of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

He predicted the force's final grab of the reins of power in Iran may come after the death of 70-year-old Khamenei, when they can impose a new political model: a collective leadership or outright military rule.

In recent years, the Guard has extended its power far beyond the military. It controls a multibillion dollar business empire, built up during reconstruction from the devastation of the 1980-88 war with neighboring Iraq.

Guard's companies now routinely land lucrative construction contracts in oil, gas and farming industries. They run networks of clinics and are believed to also control unauthorized docks to bring in much sought-after consumer goods to be sold on the black market.

Service in the Guard has become a stepping stone to national politics. Ahmadinejad and at least five members of his first term Cabinet are thought to be former Guard officers - including defense, energy, justice and interior. The parliament speaker, many parliament members, Tehran's mayor and the head of the state radio and TV network also are thought to have served in the Guard.

"They are the breeding ground of a second generation of Islamic leaders who seek to preserve, if not radicalize, the revolution's ideals, master advanced technology such as nuclear energy, ensure Iran emerges as a regional power and acquire greater financial and political assets within the system," said Tellier.

Perhaps even more important is their bond with Khamenei, who stands at the top of Iran's clerical hierarchy and directly appoints Guard's commanders.

"The Guards and Khamenei have a symbiotic relationship. In return for their support of Khamenei, the Guards have become one of the most powerful political and economic institutions in Iran," said Alireza Nader, an Iran expert with the RAND. Corp., a Washington-based research center.

"But it appears that Khamenei may have become too dependent on the Guards," Nader said. "The recent presidential election dispute showed that Khamenei must rely on the security forces, especially the Guards, to keep his political opponents out of power."

Along with its own forces, the Guard governs the Basij, a sprawling volunteer civilian force that some estimate to number a million members. Basijis include plainclothes militiamen who have been seen and taped beating and shooting protesters. But others also volunteer in government offices, companies and other institutions, keeping an eye on the ideological loyalties of co-workers.

Like hard-line clerics, Guard commanders have depicted the protest movement that erupted in support of Mousavi as a plot to foment a "soft revolution" backed by foreign enemies and aimed at toppling Iran's clerical leadership.

In a speech earlier this month, Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari opened the door for even more aggressive Basij action.

"Basij efforts should not be limited to the military dimension," he said. "This force must be prepared to neutralize the soft threat and a range of plots by the enemy on the political, economic, cultural and social levels."

He also said government officials must help Basijis in their mission.

Other Guard commanders have been fanning out across the country spreading their message.

Gen. Mohammad Ismail Saeedi told university students in Tabriz this week they should be trained on resisting a "soft revolution."