The Iranian regime hit back viciously after the opposition turned the funeral of their spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, into another huge anti-government demonstration in the holy city of Qom.
Men on motorbikes attacked the car carrying Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader, back from Qom to Tehran.
They smashed the back window and injured one of his aides, a reformist website reported. Hundreds of government agents halted the memorial service for Montazeri, according to a conservative website.
The assaults, which cannot be independently confirmed, came at the end of a day when the so-called Green Movement had carried its campaign to oust a regime it considers illegitimate into the heart of the country’s theological capital.
Six of Iran’s 12 leading Ayatollahs went to Montazeri’s house to pay their respects despite his repeated attacks on the regime.
“Qom has been under serious security over the past six months, but today they have effectively lost control of it,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St Andrews.
Opposition websites variously reported that tens or hundreds of thousands of mourners had poured into the city of shrines and seminaries. Photographs showed a sea of mourners packing the streets as Montazeri’s black-draped coffin inched forward on the back of a truck.
Mr Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two defeated candidates in June’s hotly disputed presidential election, joined the mourners as they beat their chests and chanted “Dictator — Montazeri’s way will continue”, “Oppressed Montazeri is with God today”, and “Montazeri is not dead — it is the Government that is dead”.
Footage shot with mobile phones showed men and women wearing green scarves and wristbands and holding up black-bordered portraits of Montazeri.
Opposition activists were jubilant. “This has taken the Green Movement into the heart of Qom, the ‘Vatican’ of the Islamic republic. Hopefully the clerics will begin to break away from the regime,” said one.
Another said that protesters were talking of how Qom provided the first spark for the 1979 revolution against the Shah, and could do the same for President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.
Witnesses said that after yesterday’s ceremony Basij, the militia, attacked opposition supporters outside Montazeri’s home and tore down black banners. Thousands of mourners also marched in Montazeri’s hometown of Najafabad, near the city of Isfahan.
The Green Movement appears to be emboldened and gaining momentum, and this is a week of great opportunity. The sacred month of Muharram culminates on Sunday in the emotionally charged holiday of Ashura, when Shia Muslims mourn the 7thcentury martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and the talk is of sacrifice.
The opposition is planning nationwide protests that day, and the fact that Ashura coincides with the seventh day since Montazeri’s death, an important date in the Shia mourning ritual, will give them greater impetus.
“Montazeri’s death could not have come at a worse time for the regime and it will rachet up the tensions considerably,” Dr Ansari said.
“This has made an extremely fragile situation even worse for the Government and it will be scrambling to find a way to deal with it.”
Dr Ansari added that Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei was likely to replace Montazeri as the leading clerical scourge of the regime and to be even more aggressive. He has already declared the Government illegitimate and after Montazeri’s death warned that it “cannot reverse the situation in the country with terror, killing, torture and imprisonment”.
Although the regime could not prevent yesterday’s funeral, Montazeri having been a key figure in the revolution before he parted company with its hardline leaders a decade later, it did its best to contain the damage.
Opposition websites said that busloads of mourners from Tehran, Mashhad and Shiraz were stopped from reaching Qom, 80 miles south of the capital. The regime banned the few foreign reporters left in Iran from the city and imposed strict curbs on what the state-controlled domestic media could report.
State television made only passing mention of the funeral and showed no pictures. The BBC said that its Persian television service was jammed soon after Montazeri’s death. Internet connections were slowed to a crawl.
The regime ordered newspapers in Tehran not to print front-page photographs of Montazeri yesterday, or to carry condolence messages.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance also closed down one of the last surviving reformist newspapers, Andisheh No (New Thought), and warned the ILNA news agency not to report on the Green Movement.
Montazeri, 87, died in his sleep and was buried alongside his son in the shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh, a revered Shia figure. He was a pillar of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until he began criticising Iran’s human rights record a decade later.
Since June’s election he had been one of the regime’s most potent critics, saying that Iran was no longer Islamic or a republic.
Despite restrictions on the media, tributes were paid to Montazeri. Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, said that Montazeri had “spent many years of his honourable life on the path of advancing the high goals of Islam and the Islamic revolution”.
Shirin Ebadi, the human rights activist and Nobel laureate, called Montazeri “the father of human rights in Iran”, adding: “I learnt from you that the silence of the oppressed is aiding the oppressor and that I should not remain quiet.”
• Ashura commemorates the death of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, in a battle near the Iraqi city of Karbala in the 7th century
• Some Shia beat themselves with chains and blades to emulate Hussein’s suffering — though this is frowned upon by others
• Clashes between Shia and Sunni Muslims have often marred commemorations, leading some regimes — including that of Saddam Hussein — to ban the festival
• The festival falls on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar
• This year’s festival falls on December 27, also the seventh (most important) day of mourning for Ayatollah Montazeri, therefore adding to the potential for unrest.