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Iran celebrates birth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini amid factional struggle

TEHRAN, Sept 27 (AFP) - Iran's Islamic regime on Monday marked the centenary of the birth of its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini amid an increasingly bitter struggle between his successors over his legacy.

"This year is the year of the Imam (Khomeini)," read slogans on countless giant portraits of Khomeini plastered along Tehran's roadsides, while some 500,000 pilgrims and 30,000 volunteer Islamic Basiji militia prepare to take part in official ceremonies at the Imam's mausoleum in south Tehran.

But despite efforts to create a festive atmosphere, the centenary comes just two months after the worst unrest here since the 1979 Islamic revolution and is marked by a fierce struggle between Khomeini's successors, five months ahead of crucial parliamentary elections.

This battle between the powerful conservative faction of the regime -- which closely follows the line of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- and the country's reformist partisans of the government erupted after the triumphant May 1997 election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami

The past two years have been marked by increasing tensions between the two opposing factions following a systematic clampdown by the conservatives against the political, social and cultural reforms of Khatami.

The ceremonies at the mausoleum will provide a platform for lively talks expected to be held by the reformist Khatami and his predecessor Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

Meanwhile Khamenei is set to lead weekly prayers on Friday as part of the ceremonies, which coincide with the anniversary of the birth of Fatimah, sole daughter of the Prophet Mohammad.

Dubbed 'The Year of the Imam,' by Khamenei, this year marks the centenary of the birth of the man who sparked the 1979 Islamic revolution, replacing 25 centuries of monarchy with a Shiite Islamic republic in Iran.

To bolster the anniversary's festivities, various charity and fund-raising organizations close to the regime's conservatives have organized 28,000 collective weddings across the country for young couples from poorer families.

But while the regime is celebrating the Imam's centenary, leading officials are up in arms over a play published in the student magazine Moj (Wave), which they deem "anti-Islamic and offensive."

The play is charged with mocking the belief of Iran's Shiite Muslims in a hidden 12th imam or Mahdi who will return to usher in an age of justice.

It portrays a dialogue between the imam and a Basiji, or member of the hardline volunteer militia.

The Basiji, in a state of despair about his future, mocks Shiites who are waiting in vain for the Mahdi to inaugurate the era of justice. He cares nothing for such values as "devotion and martyrdom," and directs harsh criticism at those disciples who "blindly" follow the hidden imam.

Tehran's security services said Friday they had arrested the two young writers of the play, while hundreds of worshippers in the holy southern city of Qom demonstrated with calls for those behind the "insult" to the imam to be hanged.

President Khatami criticised the publication too, but slammed the magazine for playing into the hands of conservative opponents of his reforms which outraged Islamic hardliners here.

Khatami expressed particular concern that the play had been published in a Tehran Polytechnic University review just as students returned to college after a campus protest over press freedom which sparked six days of riots in July after police and Islamic hardliners attacked the demonstrators.

The president urged the intelligence ministry to find out "why a provocative article was published and vastly circulated just on the eve of the reopening of the universities."

"It seems as though a certain group wants to create a haze across the country with a particular ambition," Khatami charged without elaborating on the identity of the group he suspected was behind it.


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