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Iranian police on alert after dissident cleric dies

Riot police are standing by in at least two Iranian cities as crowds of people gather to mourn the death of the country's most senior dissident cleric.

Riot police were standing by in three Iranian cities Sunday as crowds of people gathered to mourn the death of the country's most senior dissident cleric.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, seen here in October 2008, was once the heir apparent to lead Iran but fell from favour and spent five years under house arrest as one of the regime's most outspoken dissidents. ((Hasan Sarbakhshian/Associated Press))

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a staunch defender of the country's opposition movement, died Saturday night at age 87.

Montazeri was an architect of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, but for years he has been critical of Iran's leaders, accusing them of imposing dictatorship in the name of Islam.

He persisted with his criticism after June's disputed presidential election, which kept incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power amid widespread demonstrations.

Siavash Ardalan, a reporter for BBC's Persian service, said authorities are worried Montazeri's death could spark further unrest throughout the country.

"It's a huge security challenge for the government," he said. "There are three pockets of probable unrest. One is Tehran, where the opposition has asked supporters to gather in one of the capital's main squares tonight."

Another is Montazeri's hometown, Najafabad. A third is the holy city of Qom, where the cleric is to be buried on Monday. Reformist websites reported that Iranians from across the country planned to travel to Qom for the funeral.

Authorities faced a difficult choice over whether to try to prevent an outpouring at the funeral that could escalate into another street protest by the government's opposition. A crackdown would risk serious backlash from an influential group of clerics based in Qom who are among the current leadership's critics.

Hoping to limit attention on the funeral, authorities banned foreign media coverage of it and barred reporters from travelling to Qom.

With files from The Associated Press