Authorities created the Basij, which means mobilization in Persian, just after the country's 1979 Islamic Republic. It is part of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard.
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The Basij has its roots as volunteer fighters during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. It then developed as a grass-roots defender of the system — taking on roles such as Islamic morality police at checkpoints and parks or as shock troops busting up pro-reform gatherings or publications. Precise numbers on Basij membership are not published, but some estimates range as high as 1 million or more.
It responds to emergencies like earthquakes and other natural disasters. It also has its influence online as well: The Basij has a group of hackers made up of university teachers, students and clerics that launch attacks on websites of "enemies," a state-backed newspaper reported in 2011. It also monitors social media as well and will begin teaching "drone-hunting" to students.
Basij branches can be found in all governmental bodies, universities and schools. Volunteers often enjoy favorable treatment from the government, particularly in securing jobs in the public sector.
Here's a gallery of images by Associated Press photographer Ebrahim Noroozi showing Basij volunteers training in Iran.