Iran Makes Arrests Over Destroyed Ayatollah Photo

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian authorities have arrested several people accused of destroying photos of the Islamic Republic's revered founder and the current supreme leader at student demonstrations, state media reported Monday.

Tehran's prosecutor promised to show "no mercy" to those responsible, but the news reports carrying his remarks gave no details on who was arrested.

In demonstrations on university campuses last week, supporters of Iran's pro-reform opposition movement burned and trampled on pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They oppose him for backing hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed June re-election, which the opposition says was rigged.

But the protesters have denied government claims they also tore up a photo of the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who remains a widely respected figure in Iran.

They accuse the government of staging video of someone destroying Khomeini's picture to discredit their protest movement and justify a continued crackdown.

Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said authorities were preparing indictments against those arrested, according to the official IRNA news agency. Under the law, insults to the late or current supreme leader can lead to two years in prison.

"There will be no mercy toward those who insulted the Imam (Khomeini) and top officials of the system," IRNA quoted him as saying.

Dowlatabadi did not identify those arrested.

In last week's demonstrations, tens of thousands of students protested for two days on campuses in the capital, Tehran, and other parts of the country. There were also a number of demonstrations outside of campuses. They were the largest anti-government rallies in months, sparking violence as hard-line students and paramilitary Basij forces scuffled with protesters.

Reformists, including opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, maintain their supporters had nothing to do with the burning of Khomeini's picture, which they say is being used by the regime to discredit the opposition.

Opposition leader Mahdi Karroubi said he has asked the Interior Ministry to grant permission for his followers to stage a rally condemning the burning of Khomeini's photo.

"Otherwise we cannot take responsibility for the actions of any self-determined person (on the streets)," he said in a statement on his Web site.

Angry government supporters, including hard-line clerics, have held rallies since Friday to denounce those who destroyed photos of Khamenei and Khomeini.

Khomeini is revered by both the opposition and the ruling system. But Khamenei is a much more divisive figure, seen by the opposition as a dictator who rules with an iron fist.

The opposition dislikes Khamenei for appointing in key positions loyal hard-liners who seek to block democratic reforms and fight reformists.

During the Dec. 7 rallies, student protesters shouted, "Death to the oppressor, whether it's the shah or the leader!" – making a daring comparison between Khamenei and the pro-U.S. shah, despised in Iran since his 1979 overthrow.

A defiant Mousavi vowed Monday to continue protests against the ruling system, saying the use of force has not and won't resolve the crisis.

"After the election, people asked, 'Where is my vote?' ... If people's questions had been addressed and violence had not been used, we would have not seen taboo-shattering moves," Mousavi was quoted as saying by the pro-reform Web site Rahesabz.net.

Mousavi accused authorities of sending hard-liners armed with sticks and disguised as students to Tehran University to crush the protests there.

"They send non-students with batons and sticks to the university and call them students. Then, they say students threw tear gas at each other. This is nothing but deception. ... At least be sincere and say (authorities) sent forces to confront protests," he said.

Khamenei warned Mousavi and other opposition leaders on Sunday to stay away from protesters.

"From now on, too, protests and demands have to be pursued peacefully," Mousavi was quoted as saying.