Friday, April 15, 2005

Protests Turn Violent in Southwestern Iran

The Jerusalem Post:
More than 250 people were arrested Friday in southwestern Iran after demonstrations against an alleged plan to decrease the proportion of Arabs in the area became violent, a political activist said. READ MORE

Mohammad Navaseri said Arab residents of Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province, gathered Friday morning, chanting slogans against alleged government plans to move more non-Arabs in the city.

He said they set fire to banks and police stations in Ahvaz before more than 250 of them were arrested.

Another Ahvaz resident, Yousef Nabitaraf, said protesters smashed the windows of several banks and set at least one police station on fire.

A copy of a letter allegedly signed by former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi outlines a plan for changing the population composition in Ahvaz through relocating non-Arabs to the city to make them the majority population.

The letter was widely circulated in Ahvaz and other cities in Khuzestan, an oil-rich province that borders Iraq and is home to a large Arab population.

Arabs make up about 3 percent of Iran's population; Persians account for 51 percent of the population of 69 million.

Abtahi has denied writing such a letter, saying it was "illogical."

"Anyone reading it learns that a decision like that, even if approved by the Supreme Leader or the Supreme National Security Council or the president, can't be implemented in Iran. How could the office of the president issue such an illogical directive and change the population in the vital and important region like Khuzestan?" Abtahi asked.

"I've never had such a power to issue a directive to change the population," Abtahi wrote.

Government officials were not available for comment.

Journalists in Ahvaz also confirmed that demonstrations had turned violent.

"Demonstrations in several districts in Ahvaz turned violent when police tried to disperse the angry crowd," said Hadi Yunesi, editor of Fajr-e-Khuzestan daily, which is based in Ahvaz.

Activist Navaseri said protests in the mainly Arab districts of Dayereh, Khashayar and Kian continued late into the night and authorities responded by cutting off water and power.

"These districts have been encircled by security forces and no one can get into or leave them," he said.