Iranian security forces attacked thousands of Ahwazi Arabs staging peaceful demonstrations during the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Adha on Wednesday, with dozens arrested and injured and reports of deaths among the protestors.
Demonstrations were held in Hay-al-thura (al-Dayereh) district of Ahwaz City following morning prayers that mark the end of hajj (pilgrammage) to Makkah. The protests were called by a number of civil society groups and political organisations against ethnic cleansing, the persecution of Arabs, poverty and unemployment and calling for the release of political prisoners arrested following the Ahwazi uprising of April 2005.
Leaflets were distributed in Arab areas by the Ahwazi Arab National Committee for Peaceful Demonstration. In response, the regime deployed security forces to stop the demonstration, including 50,000 troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Baseej, the army and police who were brought in from Tehran and other provinces.
Up to 4,000 Ahwazis, including women and children, joined the march, which was peaceful. Protestors carried placards with slogans in Arabic and in Farsi. Some were also carrying Ahwazi national flag.
Troops blocked the White Bridge, preventing demonstrators from crossing to other parts of the city, and attacked the crowd without provocation. Tear gas and live ammunition was used against the protestors, injuring many of them. There are reports of fatalities, but the number of deaths has not been confirmed. Eyewitnesses said that at least 30 demonstrators were arrested at the Haye-althura (al-Dayereh) and 13 in Kut Abdollah. Separate demonstrations were also reported in the districts of Hamidieh and Kut Abdullah in Ahwaz City as well as the cities of Abadan, Fallahieah and Khafajieh. During the protests, Arab areas were surrounded and blockaded by Baseejis (paramilitary volunteers) wearing hoods and carrying machine guns.
The government's Mehr News Agency reported that the march was led by Jasem Shadidzadeh, who represented Ahwaz City in the Sixth Majlis (2000-04). Shadidzadeh is secretary general of the Islamic Wefagh Party, an ultra-reformist group seeking the redistribution of wealth and an end to poverty and ethnic cleansing in Khuzestan. He was barred from standing in the 2004 Majlis elections, but has continued campaigning for Ahwazi Arab rights. However, demonstrators confirmed that Shadidzadeh, who lives in Tehran, was not on the march, indicating that Mehr News was trying to implicate the former politician in the demonstrations. Mehr news denounced the demonstrators as "separatists" chanting secessionist slogans - a claim denied by the demonstrators.
Throughout the day, the cell phone network and internet services in Ahwaz were shut down to stop independent coverage of the protests. The province was effectively put under a stage of siege. Only the Mehr News Agency, renowned for its links to extremists within the regime, was allowed to cover the events.
Arab identity outlawed
Mass demonstrations also marked Eid-ul-Fitr, which marked the end of the month of Ramadan in November. Two people were killed as the police tried to disperse the crowd and around 200 people were arrested. Days beforehand, 81 people were arrested while conducting a cultural play called Mahibis, a popular event performed during iftaar, following fasting in the month of Ramadan. Click here for further details.
Nasser Bani-Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, said: "The regime is clamping down on all symbols of Arab identity, including any Muslim festivals that display signs of Arab culture. The regime's policy of Persianisation involves not only forced migration and land confiscation and the in-migration of non-Arabs from outside the province, but the Persianisation of the Islamic religion itself.
"Ahwazi Arabs, who are mostly Shi'ite, have tried to use Muslim festivals to display their own cultural identity. It is an act of defiance against ethnic cleansing. But this is being suppressed, indicating that the mullahs are not just religious despots but are running a tyranny that is racist."