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Middle East

Iranian hardliners lash out at opposition after protests

Theological students rally against "insult" to Khomeini

Hardliners today accused Iran's reformist opposition of seeking the removal of key pillars of the Islamic Republic, including the office of the supreme leader, and of insulting the memory of its late founder.

Conservative clerics spoke out against the opposition a few days after pro-reform students, seeking to renew their challenge to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad six months after his disputed re-election, clashed with police in Tehran.

"What they are after is to have a thin layer remaining of the Islamic Republic," Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said in a speech in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom, IRNA news agency reported.

Theological students staged rallies in Qom, Tehran and elsewhere to protest against an "insult" to late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, official media said.

State television has broadcast footage of what it said were opposition supporters tearing up and trampling on a picture of Khomeini during anti-government demonstrations on Dec. 7.

A nationwide rally on that day to mark the killing of three students under the Shah turned violent when reformist students clashed with security forces armed with batons and tear gas in the largest such protests in months.

"There will be no leniency towards those who insulted the Imam," said Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, referring to Khomeini, who spearheaded the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah and who remains widely revered in Iran.

Backers of opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, a moderate who came second in the June vote, say it was rigged to secure a second four-year term for Ahmadinejad.

The authorities have rejected vote fraud charges and portrayed the huge pro-Mousavi protests that erupted after the poll as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the Islamic state.

"They are after an Islamic Republic without Islamic jurisprudence and without the Guardian Council," Khatami said, referring to the institution of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a powerful 12-member legislative body.

The comment was echoed by a senior cleric in the northwestern city of Tabriz, Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabastari, who said the opposition's intention was "to get rid of the supreme leader", IRNA reported.

Monday's opposition protests in Tehran and elsewhere were much smaller than the demonstrations that erupted in the days after the June 12 presidential election.

But the mood seemed more radical with protesters chanting slogans against the clerical establishment and not just criticising Ahmadinejad's victory.

A day after the protests, a senior judiciary official said Iran would "show no mercy" towards opposition demonstrators seen as threatening national security, comments underlined by a Revolutionary Guards official on Saturday.

"Although we are quiet today at the order of the supreme leader, we are ready and prepared to firmly confront Islam's enemies and counter-revolutionaries with a signalling of his finger," said Ayoub Hassanzadeh, a cleric who is Khamenei's representative in the Guards' airforce.

State television showed pro-government rallies in different cities, with people chanting: "Death to America" and "Death to opponents of the supreme leader."

Iranian daily Jomhuri Eslami said Mousavi condemned the "insult" towards Khomeini. "No just and pious human being would allow himself to do such a thing," he was quoted as saying.

The June election plunged Iran into deep political turmoil and exposed deepening divisions within the establishment.

Thousands of Mousavi supporters were detained after the vote, including senior reformers. Most have been freed but about 80 people have received jail terms of up to 15 years and five have been sentenced to death over the post-vote unrest.