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Iran pays for counter-demonstrations in Ahwaz

Reports from Iran claim that the Iranian regime is handing out large amounts of cash to some members of the Ahwazi Arab community, including tribal leaders, to encourage them to participate in government-sponsored demonstrations of support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) has received a video of a meeting between former defence minister Ali Shamkhani, who is an Arab, and Ahwazis. But the Ahwazis are visibly angry, chanting slogans at Shamkhani as he walks to the meeting place. Click here to download the video, in 3gp format - playable in RealPlayer.

The President has had to cancel three public visits to Khuzestan province due to anti-government demonstrations by Ahwazi Arabs, who are protesting against land confiscation, cultural repression, discrimination, state violence and poverty.

The latest move signals that the government is resorting to buying the loyalty of local leaders, while simultaneously maintaining its confrontational stance with the Ahwazi population. Mass arrests, including kidnapping of children of Ahwazi opponents of the regime, and public executions have helped inflame anger among Arabs. As the first anniversary of the Ahwazi intifada approaches, on 15 April, the government is using bribery to stem the tide of insurrection.

The peaceful uprising last year, which occurred before Ahmadinejad's election as president, saw the regime lose control over large parts of Khuzestan, including Ahwaz and Abadan, the province's largest cities. More than 160 people were killed by security forces in the crackdown that followed, with thousands of arrests and an unknown number of summary executions.

As the anniversary of the intifada approaches, the province is witnessing an upsurge in protests. This week saw clashes between Ahwazi youths and security forces in the Dar-al-thura (Dayereh) district of Ahwaz City. A young man and two boys were shot and injured by Baseeji forces. They included 10 year old Haidar Saadi and seven year old Hassanali Saki.

The regime has blamed the British for the unrest in Ahwaz, but has failed to produce any evidence of a link between the demonstrators and foreign governments.

Nasser Bani Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, said: "Shamkhani and Khuzestan Majlis member Nasser Sudani are running the campaign to buy up loyalty among tribal leaders. This may have a limited effect on some tribes, but not all Ahwazis will simply obey tribal leaderships and not all tribes are politically united. It will not placate the Ahwazi opposition to the government, but it may provide some propaganda opportunities for the government.

"We would not be surprised if, in the next few days ahead of the intifada anniversary, there was a large pro-regime demonstration by the Baseej paramilitaries with Ahwazis featured prominently. It will be used to give the impression that dissent is marginal and that those who demonstrate against the regime's ethnic cleansing policies are extremists.

"But the fact that mass protests are now a weekly phenomenon in Ahwaz indicates that the truth is far different. This is a rebellion against the government that no amount of bribery or state violence will stop. The protests are gathering momentum."