Tehran deploys Islamic vigilantes to attack protesters

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Islamic vigilantes have been deployed to attack and film Iranian pro-democracy protesters in the streets around Tehran university.

Hundreds of demonstrators defied a ban on gatherings and chanted slogans against the government and conservative clerics on Wednesday night, the anniversary of violent student unrest in 1999.

Many others sat in their cars packed into neighbouring streets, hooting their horns in support of the protesters. Although many of the protesters were students, most appeared to be ordinary Iranians.

The government had taken measures to prevent a repeat of last month's pro-democracy protests, which continued for 10 nights. Several thousand people were arrested.

"An Iranian can die but never be beaten down," shouted a small crowd at one point, before being charged by riot police, who were trying to disperse the groups milling about in Laleh Park, the epicentre of the demonstrations.

Three student leaders were afterwards forced at gunpoint from a press conference.

Other slogans called for the release of political prisoners and attacked government leaders. But the greatest ire was reserved for the Islamic militias: the Basij and Ansar-e Hizbollah. "They are trying to kill their brothers," said Sepedeh, who was attending the protests with her mother. "They are even worse than the Israelis."

Groups of about 30 Basij on motorbikes sped around the park, lashing out at demonstrators and onlookers with clubs and lengths of hosing. Others, wearing their distinctive black and white chequered scarves, filmed the faces of protesters with video cameras.

The Ansar-e Hizbollah appeared on foot in a group of about 50. They carried chains and shouted, "Hizbollah, Hizbollah", before charging into a defiant crowd against a hail of stones.

Many of the protesters came prepared to fight. They taunted the militias and riot police before hurling stones and home-made explosives. A Basiji was knocked from his motorbike and attacked by the crowd until he was rescued by baton-swinging riot police.

There are 10 million registered members of the Basij, but not all are active. Often recruited while still at school, they are offered benefits such as better job prospects, reduced national service and easier access to further education. They are seen by many Iranians as interfering busybodies for publicly confronting people if their clothes or behaviour are deemed unIslamic. During the war with Iraq, they served as volunteer units, mainly consisting of the young and the old. Now they fight against the encroaching "immorality" of Western values and provide the bedrock of support to the conservative clergy who still wield ultimate power.

"We are under attack from domestic elements backed up by foreign powers," said Mohammed, a member of the Basij. "But if we stand strong and united, we shall have victory. Nobody can threaten the Islamic revolution."

The conservatives have been on the back foot since the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, but have succeeded in frustrating his attempts to reduce their executive power.