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Iran's extremists in war on reform

By Geneive Abdo

SHAHR-E REY, Iran, April 19 2000 (AFP) No one seemed to care when Mojtaba Mehrasebi was killed one evening in 1997 inside his car repair shop. Even after Islamic extremists sprayed bullets at the wreaths at his funeral, police and intelligence agents did not conduct an extensive investigation.

But now the Mehrasebi murder has made headlines in Iran. The same network of Islamic militants who allegedly killed him and an estimated nine other people from this city near Teheran are accused of carrying out the attempted assassination of a close aide to President Mohammed Khatami.

It was once a closely guarded secret that Shahr-e Rey was ruled by Islamic militias and extremist clerics intent on enforcing their moral codes. Now that secret is out.

Under threat from the reformist movement, the Islamic vigilantes are engaged in a religious war that is emblematic of the less violent battles throughout Iran.

The series of attacks in Shahr-e Rey, a downtrodden city where walls are covered with religious sayings from prominent ayatollahs, were carried out over the past several years in the name of Islam.

One woman was murdered because she was believed to be a prostitute. A video shop owner was shot, but survived. "Videos are worse than bombs," the extremists wrote on the walls before the attack.

A grenade was thrown into a pizza parlor that was known for allowing boys and girls to mingle - which is officially illegal but largely tolerated in Teheran.

Emboldened by the sermons from semi-official clerics in their heyyats (religious societies), the extremists broadened their activities beyond the confines of Shahr-e Rey on 12 March. They allegedly shot Saeed Hajjarian, one of the masterminds behind the reformers' victory in February's parliamentary polls. Mr Hajjarian is in hospital in a stable condition.

"The extremists are feeling the winds of reform and that's why they have become more aggressive," said Mr Mehrasebi's son, Mohsen, 25. He said his father was selected for holding meetings of dervishes, Islamic mystics often at odds with orthodoxy.

"We have tried for two years to get justice. We wrote a letter to the president and the judiciary, but the authorities ignored us," he said. "We gave our story to the newspapers when the murder happened but it was never printed. Now our story is in the news because a prominent person has been shot by the same gang who killed our father."

At least eight men, all from Shahr-e Rey, are being held in connection with the plot to kill Mr Hajjarian and are scheduled to go on trial soon.

Ordinary Shahr-e Rey residents are left trying to stay clear of the extremists' path.

Mahmoud Kaveh, who owns a video store, was shot shortly before the attack on Mr Hajjarian. A sign over the store now reads: "I have changed my vocation and closed my shop."

Fifty young people were arrested in the northern city of Rasht during three days of violent clashes with the Islamic militia and the police, police said yesterday.

All aged under 25, they were arrested for taking part in the incidents that occurred during the Shiite mourning period of Tassua and Ashura, on Friday and Saturday, police said. No injuries were reported in the incidents, said to have been sparked when the militia began beating young men accused of trying to pick up girls.