(The New York Times) | March 16, 2010
by Nazila Fathi

Iranians defied a ban on events marking a traditional festival on Tuesday, turning an annual celebration into a show of antigovernment sentiment.

Also Tuesday, the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi appeared to challenge the authority of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by assigning a name to the new Iranian year, a traditional prerogative of the ayatollah.

The celebration of the Feast of Fire, an ancient Iranian festival with Zoroastrian roots, has been banned every year since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and every year Iranians have celebrated anyway, setting off firecrackers, dancing in the streets and leaping over bonfires.

But this year, the opposition decided to make a political statement and urged supporters to celebrate the day. In response, the government took extra measures to ban celebrations.

Ayatollah Khamenei issued a decree over the weekend saying that the feast “has no religious basis and is harmful and must be avoided,” his Web site and several government Web sites reported.

The authorities forced stores and shopping malls in Tehran to close in the afternoon and banned motorcycles in the city. Thousands of pro-government forces were stationed on major streets. Municipal garbage containers were collected to prevent their being used to make bonfires, a witness said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

And neighborhood police officers went door to door warning residents that large celebrations were banned.

However, many neighborhoods “rocked” with bonfires and music later in the evening, witnesses said. The celebrations were scattered around Tehran but took place in almost all of the city’s neighborhoods. Firecrackers echoed across the city, witnesses said, despite police efforts over the past few weeks to confiscate them.

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