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Iran's secret services badly shaken by role in murder of dissidents

TEHRAN, Jan 6 (AFP) - Revelations of the involvement of intelligence agents in the murders of dissident intellectuals are seen as a blow to Iran's dreaded secret services and a potential boost to President Mohammad Khatami's efforts to carry out reforms.

In a stunning admission, the intelligence ministry said Tuesday that "some renegade, irresponsible and misguided colleagues" carried out the high-profile kidnappings and killings of several liberal writers early last month.

The rogue agents were also accused of ordering the stabbing to death on November 22 of nationalist leader Daryush Foruhar and his wife, Parvaneh.

"These crimes are not only an act of betrayal against the intelligence ministry, but have also greatly damaged the prestige of the sacred Islamic regime," the ministry said.

The revelations of intelligence ministry involvement followed mounting public and media pressure and strict orders from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mohammad Khatami to solve the murders.

Khatami praised the intelligence ministry on Wednesday for its "honest" investigation.

"I have no doubt that your appropriate move in solving the case will boost public trust in this clean and strong agency and its loyal and selfless forces," the president said in a message to intelligence ministry employees.

"Our main asset is the trust of our people and sincerity is the greatest factor for national trust," he said in the message read on state radio and television.

The announcement was welcomed by others here as a sign of the ministry's "courage," given its long tradition of secrecy and repeated complaints that the secret services have overstepped their mandate and acted above the law.

"This is a sign of the intelligence ministry's courage, a sign of our regime's strength," said conservative MP Mohammad-Reza Falker.

But others complained that the truth was late in coming and only after much resistance from political hardliners to Khatami's efforts to shed light on the affair.

"Public opinion is confused over the sluggish pace of the investigation into the recent murders," charged the government newspaper Iran Daily.

Officials said only last week that the murder cases had been forwarded to a military court, but denied they had anything to do with the armed forces or the police.

The moderate Zan (Woman) newspaper criticized the authorities for "dragging their feet in explaining why the cases had been assigned to a military court."

"Undoubtedly, this investigation is a test of the Khatami government's promises of responding to public opinion and creating a transparent political atmosphere," it said.

The Islamic Iran Participation Front, a political organisation recently founded by Khatami supporters, demanded "structural reform in intelligence agencies."

"We firmly demand reform, especially at the levels of director generals because they have shown their weakness in ensuring national security and losing people's trust," it said.

Hamshahri, a moderate newspaper which supports Khatami, predicted that the affair would force Intelligence Minister Ghorban-Ali Dorrie-Najafabadi to step down.

Dorrie-Najafabadi, a moderate conservative cleric, was appointed after Khatami was sworn in as president in August 1997, repacing controversial former intelligence chief Mohammad Falahian, who is sought by a German court in connection with the murder of Iranian dissidents in Berlin.

Many observers believe the choice of Dorrie-Najafabadi, an Islamic intellectual and economist, as intelligence minister was made to both clean up the image of the secret services and please the president's hardline opponents.

The ministry, created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, replaced the dreaded SAVAK secret services run by the late Shah, and over the years it has turned into a formidable weapon to fight "foreign plots" and armed rebels.

While successful in quelling domestic unrest and terrorist activities, the ministry has nevertheless acquired a negative reputation because of its alleged harassment of liberal intellectuals and links to a series of assaissination of political opponents abroad.

The most outstanding of the accusations, all of which have been steadfastly denied here, was a German court verdict issued in April 1996 implicating Iran's intellligence service in the 1992 murder of Kurd dissidents in Berlin.

However, the latest announcement could prove to be a turning point for Khatami's efforts to open up society and force the police and intelligence forces to abide by the rule of law.


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