Damage to shrines leads to protest at UK embassy

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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of Iranians, some throwing stones and firebombs, protested outside the British embassy in Tehran yesterday against damage to one of the most important Shia Muslim shrines in fighting between US troops and Iraqis.

The protest was the largest so far of demonstrations that have been held over the past four days in predominantly Shia Iran, which opposed the American invasion of neighbouring Iraq and has been highly critical of the deterioration in security in some parts of Iraq under US occupation.

American soldiers have been fighting Mehdi Army militia loyal to the radical Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr in Najaf and Karbala, two of the holiest cities for the Shia.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the fighting in Iraq will "bring America closer, step by step, to the precipice", the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported yesterday. "They [the Americans] thought they could easily win this complicated game. But definitely they won't win. They will experience the bitter taste of defeat," Ayatollah Khamenei said.

The golden dome of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf was punctured four times during fighting last Friday.

The leader of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah accused US soldiers on Tuesday of desecrating holy shrines in Iraq, and called on Muslims to fight to the death to defend the sites in Najaf and Karbala. Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded that all armed groups withdraw from Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian government strongly supported Ayatollah Sistani's call. "Holy shrines must be respected. One way of doing that is not to have military confrontations there," Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the Iranian Vice-President, said. "Iran respects Ayatollah Sistani and believes decisions by him must be respected."

There were no reported injuries during yesterday's demonstration at the Tehran embassy, but some windows were broken.

The US has no embassy in Iran, having severed diplomatic ties with the Islamic republic after its embassy was seized in 1979. Across Tehran, the capital, protesters burnt US flags and effigies of George Bush and Tony Blair.

The Imam Ali Mosque is the burial place of the Prophet Mohamed's cousin and son-in-law, who is revered by Shias. Militia members loyal to Sadr blamed the Americans for the damage.

Mr Abtahi said there were indications that the Americans were not to blame for the damage, but added: "American tanks firing shells and heavy machine-guns in Najaf is no respect for Islamic sanctities."