On Scene: Preparing for a Bloody Confrontation

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Iranian opposition supporters beat police forces during clashes in central Tehran, December 27, 2009. A senior Iranian police official denied a report on an opposition website that four pro-reform protesters were killed during clashes in Tehran on Sunday, the Students News Agency ISNA reported.

The Shiite mourning festival of Tasua is a time for tears and regret, but on Saturday supporters of Iran's opposition gained confidence and cheer before being brutally suppressed by pro-government militiamen.

Since Friday, Facebook, Twitter and text messages were alive with talk of a speech by former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. It was to be held at a mosque in the north Tehran neighborhood of Jamaran, the last home of Ayatollah Khomeini, high in the foothills of the Alborz mountains.

With tight winding alleys, reminiscent of Iran's provincial villages, about a thousand opposition supporters squeezed into its narrow lanes. Many more were in the surrounding area awaiting a speech they would never hear.

Mothers in chadors with their children, old men wearing black shirts customary for the mourning season, young and old, women and men, stood shoulder to shoulder in the cold winter air. The anticipation of Khatami's speech was enough to create a warm buzz such as that of worshipers outside midnight mass.

Six months since the disputed June election, and the gathering had the air of a reunion, an army regrouping post-battle, behind friendly lines. We were safe, so we thought, high up in this mountain suburb. The walls that would later hem us in seemed to offer warmth and comfort.

"There have been riots in Tabriz," one man related. With its important role in Iran's revolutionary history, news of trouble in Iran's ethnic Azeri heartland is always suppressed by the government. Many also exchanged stories of the day's skirmishes with security forces.

"Three guys jumped on a Basiji," one man described to his companions, "Everyone around was yelling, 'Film it! Film it!'"

And just in case the emails, tweets and text messages had not yet gotten through, plans for the next day were confirmed face-to-face: "10 o'clock, Imam Hussain Square. Imam Hussain to Azadi."

What prompted the crowd to begin chanting was not clear. Perhaps the numbers had reached critical mass, perhaps a realization had crystalized that we were here for a reason.

First came the salavat, an Arabic prayer for the Prophet and his family, its gentle rhythm and cadences imprinted indelibly in the minds of all Iranians. It is a unifying call to attention, since when one begins, it is customary for all to follow. Tonight it was also a vocal exercise. Four, five times it was repeated before stage two: "God is great," the battle cry. The thoughts of all turned to tomorrow.

The pre-battle briefing continued in chants and slogans. "Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein!"

Next came a reminder of the mourning season. "We are the army of Imam Hussain, supporters of Mir-Hossein!"

Tasua marks the death of Imam Hussain's bravest and most loyal lieutenants at the battlefield of Karbala. Ashura, tomorrow, would commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, himself killed by the armies of an unjust government.

It was also not forgotten where this gathering was taking place. "Family of Imam Khomeini, eyes and light of the people!" came the call. Khomeini's grandson, Hassan, is known to be a supporter of the opposition movement, though the pressures of his position have prevented him from an open declaration.

The crowd was soon reviewing all the chants in the green movement archive, as if reliving the triumphant moments of the last six months. Above them, a giant image of Khomeini hung respected and intact at the entrance to the meeting hall. It made a mockery of the engineered furor surrounding the desecration of his portrait earlier this month, footage of which was later broadcast on state television in an attempt to discredit the opposition.

Some had said that a contingent of Iran's Basij paramilitaries had taken over the mosque on the inside long before Khatami's speech was due to begin. Walking up the hill to the mosque, we had seen the now familiar buses which bring in government militias from other areas.

This had been all but forgotten in the camaraderie of the crowd, but women's screams and the fizz and crackle of a stun baton broke the spell. Two dozen Basij thugs had plowed their way through the crowd below and now faced off with the last of the opposition supporters who were gathered at the gate of the venue.

Unlike trained, uniformed police who, though violent, act in predictable, measured ways, it is impossible to know what a Basiji is going to do next.

They swung out with improvised weapons. Only one had a police baton, another wielded a long metal file he had presumably taken from a toolshed. The most impassioned of the group held a sharpened stick, which he brandished high in the air while he careened about menacingly, seemingly possessed. Later I saw one man brandishing a construction worker's shovel, still caked in dirt.

A mother shielded her young daughter who sat on the hood of a parked car, tears streaming down her face. Fearful screams came from the women, walled in by the car and the militia men. They pleaded with the protesters not to chant as it was provoking the Basijis to further acts of intimidation and terror.

The men held on for a few minutes more. They pushed and pulled, and a few were caught by the Basiji who began to beat them. They were rescued by their companions.

"There are only 10 of them, we can take them," came a voice.

"Don't retreat, that's what they want," came another.

One of the Basiji swung his baton within inches of the face of a man in the front line. Fear spread through the crowd. The militia men then changed their tactics and many accepted the offer of a peaceful exit from the scene.

Those who had seen enough, had gathered strength from the crowd and had been sufficiently appalled by the savagery of regime loyalists were lucky enough to escape. According to reports, those who remained were treated to pepper spray and beatings.

Back down on the main road the crowds had swelled. A group of about 20 government supporters were being out-voiced considerably by several hundred protesters. Soon the sound of police bikes and the smell of tear gas was in the air.

Many dispersed only to regroup on the long walk west. Car horns blared furiously. "Allah-o Akbar" could be heard from rooftops all around.

Tajrish — a center for shoppers, families and fun-seekers — had not seen a protest since the June election. Tonight, a crowd of thousands cried out from Tehran's northernmost square and anticipated their own Karbala.