First Published: 2003-03-21

Iran celebrates Noruz

Wary Iranians more concerned with New Year celebrations than US-led offensive against neighbouring Iraq.


Middle East Online

By Laurent Lozano - TEHRAN

Traditional sweets and garnish to mark the new Persian year

Iran's supreme leader on Friday told his people to prepare for a cultural and economic offensive by the United States, but they seemed more interested in celebrating their long New Year holiday than in the conflict next door in Iraq.

As US and British forces swept through southern Iraq, the normally hectic streets of Tehran were almost deserted. Many had left the capital to celebrate Noruz, the most important holiday in the Iranian calendar, with their families in the provinces.

The Iranian year of 1382 officially began Friday at 4:29 am (0059 GMT) and the festivities will carry on till next Tuesday.

Most people were already out of bed at dawn, as is the tradition, to put on their new clothes and gather around the family table decorated with symbols of life and prosperity.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used his New Year address to the nation to denounce the "satanic" war being waged on the other side of the border.

He called for an immediate end to the fighting, not because he wanted to defend Saddam Hussein's "dictatorial regime," which his country fought in a bloody war from 1980 to 1988, but because "the Iraqi nation must determine its own future."

Khamenei also called on the youth of Iran to prepare themselves for an American offensive of a different sort.

"We may not face a military war, but we will surely have a political, economic and above all cultural war," he said.

Many Iranians wonder whether their country might be the next target of US President George W. Bush. He has accused Iran, like Iraq, of developing weapons of mass destruction, fostering international terrorism and blocking the Middle East peace process.

Iran, Bush said, was firmly within the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.

But most here are sure that once the Americans have captured Iraq they will ratchet up the pressure on Iran.

Just last week a top Iranian official warned that the United States plans to mount a "software war" against the Islamic Republic to strike at the ideological bases of the nation using mass media.

Two days before that warning, Bush renewed sanctions preventing Americans signing oil deals with Iran.

In the shorter term, Iran, which already has more refugees than any other country in the world, is expecting a fresh influx from Iraq.

It called Friday on the international community not to wait until "the start of the killing of Iraqi people" to provide help for Iraqi refugees fleeing across the border.

Iran hosted 1.3 million refugees during and after the 1991 Gulf War, including 800,000 Kurdish refugees.

In southwestern Iran, residents heard loud explosions overnight coming from the other side of the border. But the press here has said that so far the only physical damage Iran has suffered from the Iraq conflict is a few blown-out windows.


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