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Iran's opposition to mourn dissident cleric.

Summary: Thousands were expected to mourn Iran's most senior dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri at his funeral in the holy city of Qom on Monday that could become a catalyst for fresh

Thousands were expected to mourn Iran's most senior dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri at his funeral in the holy city of Qom on Monday that could become a catalyst for fresh opposition protests.

Supporters of Montazeri, an architect of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah, flocked to Qom for the funeral at the city's main shrine and opposition leaders declared Monday a day of national mourning.

The reformist Kaleme website reported on Monday that the Iranian security forces stopped a bus carrying opposition supporters on their way to the funeral. Rising tension

Kaleme also reported that Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi has arrived in the holy city of Qom earlier to take part in the funeral.

Mousavi had visited the home of Montazeri in Qom, about 125 km (80 miles) south of Tehran, to express condolences to the cleric's family, Kaleme said

Montazeri's death, reported by media on Sunday, coincides with tensions rising once again in the Islamic Republic, six months after the disputed June presidential poll plunged the major oil producer into political crisis.

Montazeri was named in the 1980s to succeed revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's top authority, but fell out with the leadership, was under house arrest in Qom from 1998 until 2003 and became a respected opposition figure.

Riot police were already on the streets of Qom on Sunday, the seat of Shiite learning in Iran where demonstrations could embarrass the hardline leadership, particularly if large numbers of Islamic seminary students were to join the protests.

Iran's opposition leaders Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi urged supporters to attend the funeral. The political tensions come at a time when Iran is locked in dispute with the West over its nuclear program. Tehran says it wants energy but the West suspects there is a plan to make nuclear weapons,

As news of Montazeri's death from a heart attack spread on Sunday, hundreds of supporters took to the streets of Tehran and in Montazeri's home town of Najafabad, chanting slogans.

"Montazeri, congratulations on your freedom," the crowds in Tehran and Najafabad chanted in videos posted on the Internet.

Rallying point for opposition

Monday's burial, to start at 0530 GMT, is expected to become a rallying point for the opposition, London-based Iran analyst Baqer Moin said. "The amount of support shown to him will hearten the opposition who are mourning his loss," Moin said.

Karim Sadjadpour, associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Montazeri had become the "religious patron" of the reform movement.

"Given his old age and his isolation he didn't provide strategic leadership to the opposition, but it was far more difficult for the regime to paint the (protest) movement as 'anti-Islamic' when they had Montazeri on their side," he said.

"People and friends are coming to express their condolences," Naser Montazeri, his grandson, said from Qom.

The Jaras website said a pro-reform cleric, Ahmad Qabel, was detained on Sunday on his way to the funeral ceremony in Qom from the northeastern city of Mashhad. He was a student of Montazeri and was travelling with friends and family.

The reports were not possible to verify independently, as foreign media have been banned from reporting on protests and also from travelling to Qom for Montazeri's funeral.

"Fruit of my life"

Zan-e Rouz magazine once quoted Khomeini as saying of Montazeri: "He is the fruit of my life. My essence is in him, not once or twice but several times."

One of Iran's most senior clerics, he spent five years under house arrest until 2002 but remained a leading opposition voice until his death, even though he rarely left his home.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini after his death in 1989, expressed his condolences, ISNA news agency reported.

Alluding to Montazeri's dispute with Khomeini, Khamenei said he asked God to forgive Montazeri over a "difficult and critical test" that he faced towards the end of Khomeini's life. Khamenei made clear his opinion was that Montazeri failed the test.

Montazeri, who was a close ally of Khomeini before the revolution and jailed several times by the shah's police, was among the government's harshest critics of a clerical establishment where splits have widened since the election.

In August, the ayatollah said on his website that the authorities' handling of street unrest following the election "could lead to the fall of the regime" and he denounced the clerical leadership as a dictatorship.

The pro-reform opposition says the poll was rigged to secure hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

The authorities have denied the charge and portrayed the huge opposition protests after the election, which were quelled by the elite Revolutionary Guards and Islamic militiamen, as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the clerical leadership.

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Publication:Al Arabiya (Saudi Arabia)
Date:Dec 20, 2009
Words:830
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