TEHRAN - A throng of mourners that some opposition sources estimated in the hundreds of thousands attended the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the spiritual leader of Iran's opposition movement.
Many turned it into an antigovernment protest, according to reports from the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom.
Groups of vigilantes clashed with some of the mourners, with both groups hurling objects at each other, witnesses and opposition Web sites reported.
The reports could not be independently verified.
Authorities denied foreign correspondents permission to travel to Qom, which is 90 miles south of Tehran.
About 100 members of the government's Basij militia attacked the house of the late ayatollah and tore up a banner displaying his portrait, his son Saeed Montazeri said in a telephone interview from Qom.
"They attacked, they lost all control," Montazeri said, calling from the house. "They started to throw stones at people and tore down the mourning banner of my father."
Saeed Montazeri said that after the attack he saw several injured people. "The huge crowds in the funeral kept them from taking over," he said.
Opposition Web sites put the number of those attending the morning funeral at hundreds of thousands.
Several leading ayatollahs paid their respects to Montazeri, who was one of the highest-ranking Shiite clerics in the world but for years lived under house arrest for criticizing Iran's political leaders.
Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi visited Montazeri's house, according to the opposition Web site Kaleme.
His body was carried in a shrouded glass coffin on top of a semitrailer, which moved slowly through seas of weeping people toward the shrine of Hazrat-e Masoumeh, a female Shiite saint. There, the cleric was buried next to a son who died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Young women wearing green headbands, the color of the opposition, could be seen holding portraits of the late ayatollah.
"Many hip young people from Tehran, who usually have no interest in Montazeri, were there, crying," one witness said. "It was very moving."
People reportedly shouted political slogans such as "Montazeri is not dead, the government is dead." Government supporters, present in smaller numbers, shouted, "Hypocrites leave Qom."
Montazeri's death in his sleep of multiple organ failure Sunday dealt a blow to Iranian human rights and democracy advocates, who considered him their spiritual guide.
The death of the ayatollah comes during an already tense Shiite mourning period, called Muharram, which millions will observe by taking to the streets in the coming nights to mourn a revered Shiite saint.
After Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iranian-born Shiite cleric residing in Najaf, Iraq, Montazeri was considered the highest Shiite authority in the world.
While Montazeri was once designated to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, he was sidelined as an ideological rift developed between the two.
Montazeri envisioned Islamic experts as advisers to the government not rulers. He was also among those clerics who believed the power of the supreme leader comes from the people, not from God.
Montazeri broke with the regime in the 1980s after claiming that the ruling clerics violated the ideals of the revolution by taking absolute power rather than serving as advisers to political leaders.
He spent five years under house arrest and had only a minor role in political affairs after being released in 2003.
But the outrage after June's election gave him a new voice that resonated with a younger generation. His pivotal moments came in the summer when he denounced the "despotic" tactics and "crimes" of the ruling clerics.
State television made only a passing reference to yesterday's funeral. It was, however, pouring across the Web with videos, firsthand reports that showed the inability of Iran's authorities to fully control the Internet.
Iran's foreign minister said yesterday he expects a speedy trial for three American hikers jailed since crossing the border from Iraq in July.
Manouchehr Mottaki declined to specify what charges the Americans faced, but Iran's chief prosecutor said last month the Americans are accused of spying.
"These Americans entered Iran illegally and with aims that arouse suspicions and doubts," Mottaki said at a news conference in Beirut. "We expect appropriate sentences to be issued very soon," he added.
Josh Fattal, 27, along with Shane Bauer, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31 - all graduates of the University of California at Berkeley - were trekking in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region when they accidentally crossed the border, according to their families. Fattal grew up in Elkins Park.
The U.S. does not have diplomatic ties with Iran. The only word on the hikers' condition has come from Swiss diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Iran and have twice visited the three, most recently in October. The Swiss said the three appeared to be in good health.
- Associated Press