Iranian religious leaders suspend Khatami's ally

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IN THE latest attack on President Mohammad Khatami, Iran's Special Court for Clergy banned the country's leading pro-reform newspaper for five years yesterday and suspended its publisher from journalism.

The Salam daily, which is close to the President, was banned for printing confidential documents. The publisher, Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha, a prominent revolutionary cleric, was barred for three years.

The move came as some 50,000 members of the hardline Basij militia began what were described as "manoeuvres" in Teheran yesterday, as jockeying between Iran's moderates and conservatives ahead of next February's vital parliamentary election grew fiercer still.

Before taking to the streets the militiamen - an arm of the Revolutionary Guard controlled by Iran's clerical leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - made a symbolic pilgrimage by bus from mosques across the city to the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution that overthrew the Shah 20 years ago.

The exercises, aimed at strengthening the capital's security against "local and foreign enemies" of the country's Islamic system, come three weeks after the student protests across Teheran, which the Basijis played a crucial role in suppressing. According to Major-General Rahim Safavi, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, they are being held specifically to deter any repeat of those disturbances - the worst unrest in Iran since 1979.

The ruthless suppression of the July demonstrations was widely seen as a blow to the President in his attempt to roll back the power of the clergy and bring the country closer to the international mainstream. Western human rights groups say hundreds of the 2,000-odd people believed to have been arrested at the time are still in custody or unaccounted for.

But the power struggle between the reformers and the religious old guard is not all going the latter's way. Even as the manoeuvres started, the pro-democracy camp won a parliamentary vote that could curb the Council of Guardians, the arch-conservative body that has a decisive say over laws passed by the Majlis or Parliament, and how elections to it are run. Hitherto the council has systematically vetoed any legislation that would undermine the clergy's power, and has banned liberal candidates from standing for election on the basis that they do not meet proper Islamic standards.

In future, however, if the measure is approved in a second reading, the body will have to give full legal reasons for blocking a candidate, who for the first time will have the right of appeal.

The provision could have a big bearing on February's election, where the council was widely expected to reject pro-Khatami candidates - and probably provoke further disorder on the streets.

That fear was reflected in an official report yesterday on a string of opposition writers and politicians who were murdered in late 1998. The report insists the perpetrators were only a small renegade group within the ministry, led by the former deputy intelligence minister Saeed Emami, who died - officially by suicide - in June.

The group had sought to destabilise the country by setting reformist and conservative factions against each other. But this was not a "factional" affair, the report maintains.