The ayatollah is dead; long live the ayatollah

Continuing a series of articles from Iran, Robert Fisk, Foreign Correspondent of the Year, visits Khomeini's tomb and finds that death has done little to reduce his charisma

Behesht Zahra, Iran - I met him once, the old man in the green marble tomb, lying now beneath the cupola of gold leaf with its red flag of martyrdom. He had stared at the floor as we asked him questions, at an Emanation of Light on a tattered carpet in Qom, muttering his words quickly, almost inaudibly.

The Shah must be returned to Iran for trial, he had told us then; there must be a new Iran, a turning away from luxury and corruption. And today, along the steel and glass walls that protect the tomb, there lie - swept aside and heaped like dead leaves on an autumn day - millions and millions of Iranian riyals, tens of thousands of bank notes, all of them pushed into the shrine by pilgrims for the remission of sins and sickness and imminent death.

For a shrine is what Ayatollah Khomeini's simple grave has now become, not just a wayside sanctuary but a fully-fledged Islamic way-station, covering 3,000 square metres, whose glowing cupola and golden minarets can be seen for 20 miles, floating in the plain below the snows of Damovand.

It is half the size of the Imam Hussein's shrine at Najaf, but already twice the size of the Imam Reza's mosque at Mashad, the bulldozers and cranes labouring through the hot afternoon on the walls of a new religious college. There are shops selling Khomeini badges and plates and paintings, a shish-kebab restaurant for hungry pilgrims and a "Shrine Bazaar" for souvenir hunters.

"One day, this will be a city like Kerbala," one of the pilgrims says ecstatically, and he is probably right. You only have to see the size of the project, the height of the golden minarets, to realise that the shrine of the Imam at Behesht Zahra will one day be part of the Shia pilgrimage from Mazar-e-Sharif and Mashad to Najaf and Kerbala and Saida Zeinab.

Watch the reverence of the young men and women kissing the glass around the tomb and you realise that, in a sense, the old man is still alive, not just theologically, but politically. "Without the name of Khomeini," a poster on the pilgrims' four-lane highway says, "there would have been no revolution."

So it is here, beneath the green marble, with its spray of pink flowers and sash of black cloth, that the real focus of America's anger lies. If Iran truly presents, as President Bill Clinton claims, "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States", then the 89-year-old prelate who was buried here in June 1989 remains the real and most dangerous enemy of the US, a man whose spirit still controls a nation which remains more of a necrocracy than a theocracy.

And oddly enough, Khomeini still replies to the United States - in perfect copies of his own elderly, spindly, scholarly handwriting, the lines sloping down to the left of the page, handed out to visitors. The booklet, entitled The Last Message, is the Imam's final will and testament, handed to Ahmed Khomeini, the son who would die only six years later, and who was buried beside his father here just two months ago.

Turn, for example, to the seventh page of the text and you will find the following: "The USA is the foremost enemy of Islam. It is a terrorist state by nature ... and its ally, international Zionism, does not stop short of any crime to achieve its base and greedy desires ... the Islam nations ... are pleased to have Hussein of Jordan, Hassan of Morocco and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, fellow managers of Israel, as enemies ... we ... are delighted to be objects of criminal accusations by the superpowers through the international mass media under their control."

It could have been written yesterday, or it could have been uttered at our meeting in Qom a decade and a half ago when Khomeini's translator was Sadeq Qotbzadeh, a supporter in his Paris exile and a factotum whom we regarded then as one of the old man's loyal followers.

Yet in scarcely 10 years Qotbzadeh was to be arrested, tortured, condemned for conspiracy and executed in Tehran with Khomeini's approval. There is even a chilling line in the last will and testament which might just have referred to Qotbzadeh. "In the course of ... the revolution," the spidery handwriting says, "I spoke favourably of certain individuals who had pretensions to Islam. But I later realised their deception."

They say in Tehran that the keepers of the new shrine have to offer free breakfasts to the poor to bring the pilgrims in. But less than a mile from the cupola lie tens of thousands of Iranians who obtained only death from their allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini, a mere handful of the million who were slaughtered in the Iran-Iraq war, sharing now the same soil as the man who sent them to the killing fields.

Akbar Perbovosian, one of the shrine's guardians, was a survivor. He shows me a series of wounds, to his neck, his leg, his ankle, eight in all - from bullets and shell splinters, not to mention the chemicals he breathed during an Iraqi gas attack at Fao.

"I left my wife and baby a few minutes after the war began and I was wounded on every front," he said. "I never regretted anything. My wife supported me. I fought for Islam and the Imam. Ninety per cent of my friends were martyred. I am sorry I did not join them."

It was a terrifying statement, fearful because it was apparently offered in all sincerity. So who won, I asked? Who won the war that left a million Iranians dead and Tehran suing for peace and Khomeini drinking, in his own words, from a "poison chalice"? He thought about this for a few seconds. "We do not think of winners and losers," he said at last. "I discovered myself in the war, I learned about myself. I learned that I could fight, that I could be prepared for death. I know that we can fight again - against anyone."

The ``anyone'', of course, was America, although Mr Perbovosian was too polite to say so. And you could see how easily the words came to him in a shrine of gold and marble supposed - like other regimes one could think of this century - to last a thousand years, certainly untilBill Clinton and Warren Christopher have been forgotten.

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