Iran stages pro-government rallies, cleric urges firm punishment for protest leaders

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Friday, swearing allegiance to the clerical establishment and accusing arch enemy the United States of instigating the largest anti-government protests in nearly a decade, state TV reported.

Tehran’s Friday prayer leader called on authorities to deal “firmly” with those responsible for igniting over a week of illegal rallies, in which 22 people were killed and more than 1,000 people were arrested, according to Iranian officials.

“But those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt with based on Islamic clemency,” cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran university, TV reported.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

The anti-government rallies erupted on December 28 in Iran’s holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad after the government announced plans to increase fuel prices and dismantle monthly cash handout to lower-income Iranians.

The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

The authorities have produced no evidence of U.S. involvement in the protests, which lacked a unifying leader.


But in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Iran’s statements that external influences fomented the unrest were not groundless and Washington used any possible method to destabilize governments it disliked.

He added that U.S. calls for an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the turmoil in Iran interfered with the country’s sovereignty, news agency Interfax said. The Council will meet on Friday at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) to discuss Iran, Council president Kazakhstan has said.

Residents contacted by Reuters in various cities said the protests had shown sign of abating since Thursday, after the establishment intensified a crackdown on the protesters by dispatching Revolutionary Guards forces to several provinces.

Iran’s elite Guards and its affiliated Basij militia suppressed the country’s 2009 unrest over alleged election fraud, in which dozens of pro-reform Iranians were killed.

Iranian officials said the protests were the result of foreign instigation and mocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s support of protesters against what he called a “brutal and corrupt” establishment.

On Friday rallies, protesters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, carrying pictures of Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and waved Iranian flags.

Television footage of rallies in several cities showed people chanting “We support Imam Khamenei … We will not leave him alone in his fight against enemies”.

“Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind foreign-linked riots which insulted religion and our authorities,” state television reported, referring to the anti-government protests in which social media footage showed protesters tearing down pictures of Khamenei.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”


To allay tension, the government has suspended its plans to cut cash handouts and increase fuel prices.

“There are workers who say they have not received their salaries for months … These problems should be resolved,” Khatami said, according to state TV.

Fearing that further unrest could undermine the Islamic republic altogether, Iran’s faction-ridden political elite has displayed a united front.

But Khamenei and his hardline allies have criticized Rouhani for failing to revive the economy after most sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016 under a nuclear deal reached between Tehran and major powers aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear program.

Rouhani secured the deal in 2015, raising hopes of better economic times among many Iranians, but discontent has since risen over the lack of broad improvement in living standards.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)

Police question man in killing of Muslim cleric in New York

A crowd of community members gather at the place where Imam Maulama Akonjee was killed in the Queens borough of New York City

By Chris Prentice and Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City police said on Monday they were questioning a man in the killing of a Muslim cleric and his associate as they left prayers at a mosque in the borough of Queens, a crime that shocked their Bangladeshi community.

The man was detained on unrelated circumstances and has not been charged in the killings, a police spokesman said. Earlier, local media, including NBC News and the New York Daily News, said the man was a suspect, citing unnamed police sources.

Police have yet to establish a motive behind Saturday’s murders and have said there was no evidence the men were targeted because of their faith but nothing was being ruled out. Residents demanded authorities treat the brazen daylight shooting as a hate crime.

The gunman stalked the pair from behind and shot both in the head at close range at about 1:50 p.m. (1750 GMT) in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, one of the city’s five boroughs, police said in a statement.

The victims, identified as Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, were wearing religious garb, police said. Officers found them bleeding in the street and took them to a hospital where they were pronounced dead.

“While we do not yet know the motivation for the murders of Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, we do know that our Muslim communities are in the perpetual crosshairs of bigotry,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Rest assured that our NYPD will bring this killer to justice.”

The men were attacked a couple of blocks from the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque, from where they had just left afternoon prayers. Ozone Park, a diverse, largely working-class neighborhood, is home to a growing number of Muslims of Bangladeshi descent.

Millat Uddin, 57, an Ozone Park resident not related to the one of the victims, said both men were born in Bangladesh. He said he was close to Akonjee, describing him as a “docile, calm” father of seven who was beloved in the neighborhood.

Akonjee was carrying $1,000 in cash with him at the time of the attack but the money was not taken, the New York Times reported.


Police released a sketch of a male suspect with dark hair, a beard, glasses, and of medium complexion. He appeared to be in his 30s or 40s. NBC reported the man being questioned matched the description.

The shooting appeared to be the most violent attack against local Muslim leaders in recent years, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights and advocacy group.

A report in June by CAIR and the University of California at Berkeley said the number of recorded incidents in which mosques were targeted jumped to 78 in 2015, the most since the group began tracking them in 2009.

Hooper said he could recall incidents in which an imam was pushed, called names or otherwise harassed.

“Things like that, but nothing of this nature, nothing where people were killed,” he said.

CAIR offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter.

Witnesses saw the assailant, dressed in a dark shirt and blue shorts, fleeing with a gun in his hand, police said. Surveillance footage showed the suspect following the victims.

Mohammed Ahmed, 22, who works at his father’s corner store on Liberty Avenue just two blocks from the shooting, said he heard the shots while he was at work.

“It makes all the Muslims scared,” he said. “Last time someone got shot in this neighborhood that I know of was probably 2001.”

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and David Ingram in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Dominic Evans and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Shi’ite Cleric al-Sadr orders followers to target U.S. troops

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is seen during a protest against corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr instructed his followers on Sunday to target U.S. troops deploying to Iraq as part of the military campaign against Islamic State.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Monday the Pentagon would dispatch 560 additional troops to help Iraqi forces retake the northern city of Mosul in an offensive planned for later this year.

Sadr, who rose to prominence when his Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion, posted the comments on his official website after a follower asked for his response to the announcement.

“They are a target for us,” Sadr said, without offering details.

The Mahdi Army was disbanded in 2008, replaced by the Peace Brigades, which helped push back Islamic State from near Baghdad in 2014 under a government-run umbrella, and maintains a presence in the capital and several other cities.

Sadr, who commands the loyalty of tens of thousands of supporters, is also leading a protest movement that saw demonstrators storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone government district twice this year, hampering parliament for weeks.

The new troop deployment, which is expected to happen within weeks, would raise the number of U.S. forces in Iraq to around 4,650, far below the peak of about 170,000 reached during the nearly nine-year occupation.

Other Shi’ite militias, particularly those backed by Iran, have made similar pledges to attack U.S. soldiers in the past year, but the only casualties since American forces returned to Iraq to battle Islamic State two years ago have come at the hands of the Sunni militant group.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Peter Cooney)