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Iran: Paramilitary Force Prepares For Urban Unrest

By Bill Samii

The Basij Resistance Force, a paramilitary organization connected with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, appears to be undergoing something of a revival under the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

This could be connected with the organization's alleged role in securing votes for Ahmadinejad during the presidential campaign and on election day. Ahmadinejad, furthermore, appointed Hojatoleslam Heidar Moslehi, the supreme leader's representative to the Basij, as an adviser in mid-August.

But the revival -- along with changes in the paramilitary organization's senior leadership -- could also be connected with preparations for possible civil unrest.

Confronting Urban Unrest

In late September the Basij staged a series of urban defense exercises across the country. General Mirahmadi, the first deputy commander of the Basij, announced in Tehran that the creation of 2,000 Ashura battalions within the Basij will enhance Iran's defensive capabilities, "Iran" reported on 25 September. Ashura units have riot-control responsibilities.

The Basij began the Ya Ali Bin Talib phase of the eight-day Zolfaqar military exercises in the southwestern Khuzestan Province on 27 September, the provincial network of Iranian state television reported from Ahvaz. The exercises will take place in eight cities. "The objective of the current phase of the military exercise is to confront [urban] unrest," Ahvaz Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Musavi-Jazayeri said. A Guards Corps commander, identified only as Rastegar, added that there will be "operations to confront internal unrest and agitation as well as relief and rescue operations."

The television correspondent explained that participants in the exercise are approximately 70 Ashura and Al-Zahra battalions (which are made up of women) and 500 Basij combat groups, as well as Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel.

The three-day Expectants-of-Mahdi phase of the Zolfaqar exercises began in Delijan, south of Qom, on 22 September, Mehr News Agency reported. This exercise also focused on confronting urban unrest. Basij personnel reportedly underwent ideological, political, and combat training, and they participated in cultural competitions.

Ashura units staged the Devotees-of-Velayat phase near Tafresh, west of Qom, from on 21-23 September, Mehr News Agency reported.

The timing of these exercises links them with the ongoing commemoration of Holy Defense Week, which marks the beginning of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Their focus on urban unrest, however, suggests that the regime anticipates a negative reaction to its policies. Either it is its preparing for such a reaction or it is sending a warning to the population.

Personnel Changes

Basij commander General Mohammad Hejazi said on 14 September that the Basij has more than 11 million members across the country, Fars News Agency reported. "Among the most important tasks of the Basij are boosting everlasting security, strengthening development infrastructures, equipping resistance bases, [and] increasing employment," Hejazi added. He described the prohibition of vice and the promotion of virtue in society as the "divine policy" of the Basij.

The precise size of the Basij is an open question. Iranian officials frequently cite a figure of 20 million, but this appears to be an exaggeration based on revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's November 1979 decree creating the Basij. Khomeini said at the time that "a country with 20 million youths must have 20 million riflemen or a military with 20 million soldiers; such a country will never be destroyed," according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's website (http://www.irib.ir/Special/Azar/basij/html/en/basiq_culture.htm).

A 2005 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says there are about 90,000 active-duty Basij members who are full-time uniformed personnel; they are joined by up to 300,000 reservists. That study adds that the Basij can mobilize up to 1 million men. Basij membership comprises mainly boys, old men, and those who recently finished their military service.

The real figure for Basij personnel falls somewhere in the middle, if one includes members of the University Basij, Student Basij, and the former tribal levies incorporated into the Basij (aka Tribal Basij). Middle-school-aged members of the Student Basij are called Seekers (Puyandegan), and high-school members are called the Vanguard (Pishgaman).

While there are questions about the actual size of the Basij Resistance Force, there is greater certainty about the identity of its leaders. General Hejazi is the commander of the Basij. A ceremony for the appointment of General Mirahmadi as his first deputy commander took place on 4 September, ISNA reported. The Tehran commander is Seyyed Mohammad Haj Aqamir. A ceremony making General Ahmad Zolqadr the deputy Basij commander for Tehran took place on 5 September, ISNA reported. Brigadier General Mohammad Yusef Shakeri was introduced as the new Basij commander in Tabriz at a 29 September ceremony, Fars News Agency reported.

The significance of these personnel changes is not immediately obvious. Are they routine? Is it a matter of political patronage, as commanders are promoted in gratitude for their help during the presidential race? Perhaps individuals are being replaced because there are doubts about their dependability once the time comes to confront urban unrest.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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