Well-equipped policemen beating unarmed demonstrators. That was the image that became synonymous with opposition protests in Iran following the disputed presidential election in June.
But on Sunday the pattern changed. On the holy festival of Ashura, the day on which Shia Muslims commemorate the violent death of their religious leader Imam Hussein, the tide may have turned in Iran.
The pictures and amateur videos coming out of Iran via the Internet showed many scenes that form a marked contrast to the images that have become familiar in recent months. This time it was the demonstrators who were chasing, seizing and beating up the police. This time it was members of the security forces who were sitting covered in blood by the roadside. And not only that -- there were also pictures of uniformed men who had changed sides, being carried by demonstrators on their shoulders and waving the green ribbons that have come to symbolize the protest movement.
Regime Ignores Traditional Ceasefire on Important Holidays
It had been clear for days that there would be serious clashes between security forces and members of the opposition on Dec. 27. The spiritual leader of the reform movement, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, died on Dec. 19. His funeral, which up to 1 million people are said to have attended, became a show of strength for the Iranian opposition. On Sunday, the traditional commemorations which take place seven days after a death coincided with the feast of Ashura, the climax of the mourning month of Muharram. The two occasions made emotions run so high among many protesters that they were ready to go on the attack, after being victims up until now.
The fact that security forces did not, during the clashes of recent days, observe the ceasefire that traditionally applies during important holidays has caused an uproar, even among conservative Iranians who have so far been loyal to the regime. Eyewitnesses reported that many Iranians who could be recognized by their clothing as devout Muslims could be seen among the protesters in Tehran on Sunday.
Body of Mousavi's Nephew Seems to Have Disappeared
An incident on Saturday had alienated conservatives from a regime to which they are generally loyal. Riot squads aligned with the regime stormed a mosque in Tehran where former president Mohammed Khatami was giving a speech. The fact that there appeared to be an order to shoot on the Ashura, a religious day of mourning, enraged a wide spectrum of Iranians. "Even the regime of the Shah respected the Ashura and delayed confrontations until the days afterwards," ranted Mahdi Karroubi, a cleric and defeated presidential candidate. The regime that emerged out of the Islamic Revolution, he said, has now dipped its hand in the blood of the nation. According to eyewitness reports, even conservative woman covered in the chador were chanting on Sunday for Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stand down.
It is still unclear how many people died on Sunday. Reformist Web sites like Jaras are reporting eight to 10 deaths. The Iranian state media, which initially denied that there had been any deaths, on Monday reported 15 victims, including 10 "known anti-revolutionary terrorists" as well an additional five people who had died under "suspicious circumstances." The state media claimed that 3,000 "rioters" had been arrested.
It seems certain that Ali Habibi-Mousavi is among the dead. Filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who is based in Paris and acts as Mousavi's spokesperson abroad, said that Habibi-Mousavi had been run over in front of his own front door and then shot. On Monday, the reformist Web site Jaras also reported, curiously, that the brother of the victim claimed that Habibi-Mousavi's body had disappeared from the hospital morgue. For now, he said, no burial can take place.
Is the government making corpses disappear in order to avoid a repeat of the funeral processions on Ashura day that degenerated into riots? Iranian observers say that may be possible. They say the regime appears to have been pushed into the corner and is now using every means at its disposal in its efforts to regain the upper hand. The government in Tehran is faced with a dangerous cycle: Traditionally, Iranians commemorate the dead three, seven and 30 days after the death occurs. The commemoration of Montazeri's death on Sunday cost up to 15 lives -- providing 15 more reasons for crowds to take to the streets. The recurring funeral marches for the Revolution's Martyrs was one of the phenomena that led to the fall of the Iranian Shah in 1979.
'The Leaders Must Come Before a Judge'
The escalating threats against Mousavi and Karroubi, the politicians who have been forced into the roles of opposition leaders, are another indication that the regime is on the defensive. On Monday, the head of the Iranian parliament's judicial committee said the time had come for them to be held responsible. "The leaders must come before a judge," committee chair Ali Shahrokhi said. Although there have been many calls to hold Karroubi and Mousavi responsible for the protests, the regime has thus far avoided taking that step. Tehran fears that could unleash a storm that would be the government's downfall.
On Monday, the regime lashed out at the leader's close collaborators and advisers. The opposition reported that Mousavi's assistant, Mohamad Bagherian, was arrested along with Moussavi campaign manager Ghorban Behzadian-Nejad. Emadeddin Baghi, Karroubi's former campaign manager and also a student of Montazeri, was also taken into custody. At the same time, more fighting broke out in the streets.
By Wednesday at the latest -- three days after the deaths of the Ashura festival -- there could be massive conflicts between the opposition and government forces. The protesters want to take advantage of the momentum the mourning month of Muharram gives them. The slogans used on Sunday underscore the fact that they still want to force regime change, despite the danger. As they marched through the streets of Tehran, thousands cried: "We will fight, we will die, we will reconquer our country."