Explosion of fury on al Quds day

Iranian protesters clash with police in a show of defiance on al Quds day, in an expression of anger at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

An Iranian female opposition supporter reacts as she attends a protest in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Sept. 18, 2009, in competition with government-sponsored mass rallies to mark an annual anti-Israel commemoration, the Quds Day that reflects the Persian nation's sympathy with the Palestinians. (AP Photo) *** Local Caption ***  VAH120_APTOPIX_Mideast_Iran_.jpg *** Local Caption ***  VAH120_APTOPIX_Mideast_Iran_.jpg
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Iranian opposition supporters fought pitched battles with riot police and hardliners yesterday in the first show of defiance since the regime crushed protests against the re-election as president of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad two months ago. Police fired tear gas, while reformists retaliated with rocks and bricks. Two reformist leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who lost to Mr Ahmadinejad in the election, and the former president Mohamad Khatami, were reportedly attacked as they tried to take part in marches, ostensibly to celebrate al Quds (Jerusalem) day: an occasion for expressing opposition to the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem first initiated by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

Controversy in Iran, however, began a few days ago when it was announced that Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who supported Mir Hossein Mousavi's reformist campaign in Iran's controversial election this June, and who traditionally leads al Quds day prayers, was being replaced with conservative cleric Ahmad Khatami. The anti-Ahmadinejad opposition used the public demonstration as an opportunity to protest, and some even renamed al Quds "Green Day" after Mr Mousavi's campaign colour.

"We don't agree with al Quds Day ? it is not related to us," said Sahar, a young demonstrator in Tehran who did not want to give her surname. "We want to save our country, so we call it Iranian Green Day." Opposition protesters, wearing green T-shirts, wristbands and scarves, and chanting "death to the dictator", hurled stones and bricks in clashes with security forces firing tear gas. They waved their fingers in the air in V-for-victory signs along with pictures of Mr Mousavi.

At least 10 people were arrested, according to reports. Mr Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, used the occasion of al Quds to repeat his claim that the Holocaust was a "myth" and a pretext for the creation of Israel, comments he has made before that often sit well with his hardline supporters. Mr Ahmadinejad was speaking in televised comments before Friday prayers at Tehran University. Al Quds, which takes place on the last Friday of Ramadan, has become an international day of support for the Palestinian cause, with celebrations taking place in European capitals as well as Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran as well as mostly Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, say experts, in the region at least, the day has become as much about internal politics and the projection of Iranian influence as it is a gesture of pan-Islamic solidarity.

"Khomeini supported the Palestinian cause because the Shah supported Israel," said Baqer Moin, author of an acclaimed biography of the Ayatollah. "And one of the first things he did was to give the Israeli Embassy to the Palestinians." Later, according to Mr Moin, the annual show of support became "a way of building bridges with the Arab public, though not with Arab governments, who had been milking the Palestinian cause themselves for decades and didn't want a competitor".

"It is an Iranian day," said Jaber Suleiman, a Beirut-based researcher on Palestinian issues. "It is not a pan-Arab or a Pan-Islamic one." Some Palestinians, Mr Suleiman said, feel it constitutes an appropriation of their cause, "but then they look at Arab regimes, and see that no one else is doing anything". As well as enhancing Iran's credibility with the Arab public by focusing on the issue of Jerusalem, Ayatollah Khomeini reinforced the religious dimension of the Palestinian struggle. The newly-forged Islamic Republic fell out with the secular PLO movement after the latter's support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Although the institution of al Quds day helped Islamicise the Palestinian cause, Ayatollah Khomeini skillfully couched its appeal as broadly as possible, saying it was not just about Jerusalem itself but "a day for the oppressed to rise and stand up against the arrogant". In an appeal to Christian audiences, he also pointed out that Jerusalem was not just an issue for Muslims but "all monotheists and faithful people".

For many Palestinian refugees however, the symbolic importance of Jerusalem is no more pressing than other peace-process issues, such as the right of return. "It's like being asked to choose between your heart and your liver," said one resident of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, when asked which was most important. In the Dahiyeh, the headquarters of Hizbollah, slickly-designed billboards have been erected depicting men and women of different ages beholding the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed an event attended by thousands.

In a nearby area of Beirut, Palestinians were demonstrating for an issue closer to home: the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres which took place under Israeli supervision in 1982 in which hundreds, some estimate thousands, of civilians were killed. Hoda al Mahmad, 40, stood outside the graveyard, waiting for the march to begin. "I came here because it could have been me inside this graveyard," she said. "I was 12 years old; all my neighbours were killed."

Raji, one of the organisers of yesterday's demonstration in Lebanon's refugee camps, who did not want to give his surname, said that he had mixed feelings about the event. "We don't need Khomeini to define [the Palestinian cause] for us. I respect Khomeini, he's a great guy. He wanted to play a role through the Palestinian cause. But at the end it is my cause. You don't need someone from outside the country to define it for you."

* The National