If you've watched any of the televised images from Iran since the people first went into the streets to protest their country's rigged election, you've seen them in action. That bunch of thugs wearing civilian garb and clubbing protesters with nightsticks are the Basij -- Niruyeh Moghavemat Basij is the formal name -- the militia the mullahs use to maintain control of Iran's population.
In addition to their nightsticks (some of which are electrically charged), members of the Basij (pronounced buh-SEEJ) also wield chains, knives and axes, and they ride around on small motorbikes. A commenter on CNN this weekend described them as "a cross between Hell's Angels and Al-Qaeda." While their motorbikes are small compared to the hogs the Angels ride, don't laugh. The little bikes have more than enough power to chase down young Iranians who are fleeing for their lives.
Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), in a briefing paper (PDF), characterizes the force as:
"...the ideological-military core of the Islamic regime, glorifying values such as martyrdom and self-sacrifice for the sake of the lofty goals of Islam and the homeland. As such, it is the embodiment of the ethos and values of the Islamic Revolution."
Ahmadinejad himself served in the Basij as well as in the the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war.
When the Basij shock troops were first organized after a November 1979 decree issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, most of the members were old men and young boys, since the lion's share of the males in between were already in the Army or had been killed in battle.
The Basij are not just your average, run-of-the-mill thugs. These pigs are true believers. It is from their ranks that volunteers were recruited to launch "human wave" attacks during the war between Iraq and Iran, particularly in the area which surrounds Basra:
Under the command of the Revolutionary Guards, they would charge blindly across minefields with plastic keys, symbolising the martyr's entry to paradise, strung round their necks.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Basij volunteers were martyred by the tens of thousands in the war with Iraq, but now they act as Khomeini's moral police:
They have been active in monitoring the activities of citizens, enforcing the hijab and arresting women for violating the dress code, and seizing 'indecent' material and satellite dish antennae.
At the core of the thug militia is a cadre of religious zealots who see their mission in life to preserve the Revolution:
They have been active in harassing government critics and intellectuals, have firebombed bookstores and disrupted meetings. They are said to gather at the invitation of the state-affiliated media and generally act without meaningful police restraint or fear of persecution.
The size of this force is not known precisely. GlobalSecurity.org says that according to Khomeini's decree:
"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."
Their numbers have never come close to that goal:
Officially, the Basij today number some five million: but only a fraction of its cadres are thought to be active.
The Basij are everywhere. The paramilitary force:
"...has leaders based in mosques in every village and city throughout Iran, giving it the widest security network in the country," said Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a specialist in Iranian politics.
According to witnesses, the Basij participated in a police raid on Tehran University student dorms Sunday night after the students threw stones, bricks and Molotov cocktails at police:
Basij members used axes, sticks and daggers to ransack student rooms and smash computers and furniture, wounding many students, according to witnesses.
A day later, students attacked a compound used by the Basij and tried to set it on fire. Gunmen on the roof fired on the crowd and killed seven people, according to state media.
Those who are hoping to see the courageous young protesters overthrow Iran's repressive regime may have a long wait. In addition to the country's regular military, police and the Basij militia, Iran has a secret police every bit as brutal as the Shah's dreaded Savak. Organized under the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the VEVAK secret police are the mechanism through which Iran maintains its reputation as the most active sponsor of terrorism in the world. Thanks largely to the Basij, which handles domestic spying on the country's own citizens, VEVAK is free to concentrate on exporting terror to other nations.
Without help from outside sources, mainly in the form of small arms to use against the Basij, Iran's citizens who yearn to be free from the yoke of their own government's oppression are up against overwhelming odds. At night, the youthful voices of those who dare to defy Iran's totalitarian regime can be heard from the rooftops:
"Allahu akbar!" the two young women cry out across the rooftops.
Another voice joins in, and then another, and then another, building to a crescendo.
"Allaaaaahu akbar!" a deep male voice crests.
The voice is beautiful, and easily recognizable as the muezzin from the local mosque.
"Allaaaaahu akbar!" his rich voice echoes through the neighborhood. "Allaaaaahu akbar!"
The people turn to their God in the misery of their enslavement. There is no one else they can turn to.