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Originally published June 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 19, 2009 at 9:44 AM

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Iran riots drive stealth militia into the light

The daytime protests across the Islamic republic have been largely peaceful. But Iranians shudder at the violence unleashed in their cities at night, with the shadowy vigilantes known as Basijis beating, looting and sometimes gunning down protesters they tracked during the day.

The New York Times

The daytime protests across the Islamic republic have been largely peaceful. But Iranians shudder at the violence unleashed in their cities at night, with the shadowy vigilantes known as Basijis beating, looting and sometimes gunning down protesters they tracked during the day.

The vigilantes plan to take their fight into the daylight today, with the public-relations department of Ansar Hezbollah, the most public face of the Basij, saying they planned a public demonstration to expose the "seditious conspiracy" being carried out by "agitating hooligans."

"We invite the vigilant people who are always in the arena to make their loud objections heard in response to the babbling of this tribe," said the announcement, carried on the Web site Parsine.

The announcement could be the first indication that the government's gloves are coming off, Iranian analysts noted, because up to this point the Basijis, usually deployed as the shock troops to end any public protests, have been working in stealth.

"It is the special brigades of the Revolutionary Guards who right now, especially at night, trap young demonstrators and kill them," said Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian exile who helped write the charter for the newly formed Revolutionary Guards in 1979, when he was an aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "That is one way the regime avoids the responsibility for these murders. It can say, 'We don't know who they are.' "

The death toll stands at 13, said Shahram Kholdi, a graduate student at the University of Manchester in England, who is building a Web site to track all killings.

The Association of Human Rights Activists in Iran maintained that at least 32 people were killed, but that number could not be confirmed.

Letters target group

Mir Hussein Mousavi, the opposition presidential candidate leading the fight to overturn the results of last week's presidential campaign, published two letters on his Web site on Thursday decrying the violence being carried out by the Basij.

In one letter, he said an otherwise peaceful day of protest last Monday had been sullied when seven people were killed, although he did not name the Basij directly.

"They tried to turn the sweetness of this most glorious gathering into beastly confrontations to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the lovers of Iran," he wrote. Calling the vigilantes the "disciples of fraud and lies," he said they destroy both public and private property to spread fear and chaos and to give the police an excuse to crack down on peaceful demonstrators.

In the second letter, to the National Security Council, he went further in depicting the vigilantes' role as agents provocateurs.

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Saying the Basijis lack uniforms, proper identification or anything that denotes them as public employees, he said they appeared with hoses, clubs, iron bars, truncheons and sometimes firearms.

"Just before the police show up, they attack the demonstrations," he wrote. "They try to provoke the demonstrators and they destroy people's property and vehicles." Mousavi said the security forces did nothing to stop them.

The Iranian government said shots were fired from a Basij base near the rally Monday because the men inside feared the building was under attack.

Group's history

The word Basij means roughly "mass mobilization" in Persian, and the original organization consisted of all the civilian volunteers whom Khomeini urged to go fight on the front in the Iran-Iraq war. Some of them died while tramping across mine fields toward Iraq.

They were reborn in the late 1990s, Iran experts said, after the government thought that it had lost control of the streets during spontaneous celebrations when Iran won a spot in the World Cup soccer championship in 1998 and again during student protests in 1999. "They decided to invest in a force that could take over the streets that didn't look like a military deployment," said an Iran analyst who did not want to be identified because of his involvement in the events.

The Basij was nominally part of the Revolutionary Guards, but it is a loosely allied group of organizations that range from the more official units such as the Ansar Hezbollah, which undergo formal training, to many groups controlled by local clerics.

Nearly every mosque in Iran has a room marked Paygah-e-Basij, or Basij base, which serves as a kind of Islamic club where students study the Quran, organize sports teams and plan field trips.

Some members are religious zealots, and some are not. Most members are lower-middle-class young men who enjoy certain benefits by joining. They can skip the required military service, can obtain reserved spots in universities and receive a small stipend.

No one seems to know how many people belong to the Basij, but estimates run from a few hundred thousand to more than 12 million. Mohsen Sazegara, a co-founder of the Revolutionary Guard and now president of the Washington-based Research Institute for Contemporary Iran, said that while the Basij claim 12 million members, he believes them to number around 500,000.

The age range is from high school to about 30.

Basijis, who can be disorganized and undisciplined, have been known to beat up students for the simplest infractions of Islamic conduct. A student at Isfahan University said he had once been beaten because he walked down the corridor to the bathroom in just his underwear; Basij students in the dormitory thought he was insufficiently modest.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after taking office in 2005, tried to create a more formal organization for the Basij, with an official budget, but the Revolutionary Guards rejected the move, Iran analysts said.

Rafsanjani a target

The demonstration planned for today by Ansar Hezbollah is expected to march on the Expediency Council, a government-oversight body run by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Ahmadinejad attacked him and his family as corrupt during the campaign, and although he has dropped out of public sight since the election, Rafsanjani is widely believed to be orchestrating the opposition.

The huge numbers of people who have turned out to protest the election results in recent days have presented a problem for the Basij: There are too many demonstrators to enable the vigilantes to intimidate people in their customary way. At times when the Basijis have tried to attack demonstrators, the crowd has turned on them, beating the vigilantes and setting their motorcycles on fire.

Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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