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Iran's top dissident cleric Montazeri dies

Iran's senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, has died, official media reported on today. He was 87.

Montazeri, who branded Iran's disputed election in June fraudulent, was an architect of the 1979 Islamic revolution who fell out with the present clerical leadership and spent five years under house arrest until 2002.

He had been named to succeed late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader, but quarrelled with him in 1989 over the mass execution of prisoners. Instead, the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, succeeded Khomeini after he died later the same year.

"Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away in his home last night," the official IRNA news agency said in a report that did not mention his title.

He lived in the holy Shi'ite Muslim city of Qom, south of Tehran, and was one of the Islamic Republic's most senior clerics.

In August, he described the clerical establishment as a "dictatorship", saying the authorities' handling of street unrest following the June presidential poll "could lead to the fall of the regime".

Montazeri was among the government's harshest critics in a clerical establishment whose splits have gaped during turmoil triggered by the disputed election six months ago.

The pro-reform opposition says the poll was rigged to secure hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

The authorities have denied the charge and portrayed the huge opposition protests that erupted after the election as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the clerical leadership.

The semi-official Fars News Agency said another senior pro-reform cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yusof Saanei, visited Montazeri's home on Sunday to express his condolences.