Protesters chant in streets, clash with police in Tehran

Sunday, June 21, 2009
A demonstrator holds a banner Friday during a demonstration to protest human rights abuses in Iran, outside Spain's Foreign Ministry in central Madrid. Protesters carried banners reading, 'Where is my vote?' and 'For a secular Iran' and 'Human rights for Iran'. (DANIEL OCHOA DE OLZA ~ Associated Press)

TEHRAN, Iran -- Police beat protesters and fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands who rallied Saturday in defiance of Iran's clerical government, sharply escalating the most serious internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

President Obama challenged Iran to halt the "violent and unjust" crackdown, his bluntest language yet on the crisis.

"We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people," Obama said in a written statement. "Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away."

Iran's English-language state TV said as reports of street clashes became public that a suicide bombing at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini south of Tehran had killed one person and wounded eight. The report could be not independently evaluated due to government restrictions on journalists. An eyewitnesses said on a Persian-language state TV broadcast that only three people had been wounded. It showed images of broken glass but no other evidence of damage or casualties.

Some 3,000 protesters, many wearing black, chanted "Death to the dictator!" and "Death to dictatorship!" near Revolution Square in downtown Tehran, setting off fierce clashes with police firing tear gas, water cannons and guns, witnesses said. It was not clear if police were firing live ammunition.

Some protesters appeared to be fighting back, setting fire to militia members' motorcycles, witnesses said. State video footage showed people beating a man in the street beside a fallen motorcycle. Another motorcycle blazed nearby.

Amateur video showed crowds chanting in the streets and hurling rocks at police, with white clouds of gas billowing through the streets.

There were no immediate confirmed reports of fatalities and the head of Iran's police said his men had been ordered to act with restraint.

"We acted with leniency but I think from today on, we should resume law and confront more seriously," Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam said on state television. "We will definitely seriously confront those who violate rules."

After dark, people returned to the rooftops and shouted "Allahu Akbar!" -- God is Great -- as a show of defiance against the system, a technique borrowed from the days of the revolution.

A massive rally in Tehran's Freedom Square Monday set off three consecutive days of protests demanding the government cancel and rerun June 12 elections that ended with a declaration of overwhelming victory for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says he won and Ahmadinejad stole the election through widespread fraud.

Mousavi has not been seen since a rally Thursday, but late Saturday he repeated his demand for the election to be annulled.

In a letter to Iran's Guardian Council, which investigates voting fraud allegations, Mousavi said some ballot boxes had been sealed before voting began. He also said thousands of his representatives had been expelled from polling stations and some mobile polling stations had boxes filled with fake ballots.

"The Iranian nation will not believe this unjust and illegal" act, Mousavi said in the letter on one of his official websites.

The council said it had agreed Saturday to recount a sampling of 10 percent of the ballot boxes nationwide.

"There is no legal duty on us, but we are ready to recount 10 percent of the ballot boxes around the country randomly, with the respected representatives of the dear candidates present, to reach certainty," council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said on state TV.

Mousavi did not say whether he endorsed ongoing street protests or the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who sternly warned opposition leaders to end rallies or be held responsible for "the bloodshed, the violence and rioting" to come.

Khamenei's statement during Friday prayers effectively closed the door to Mousavi's demand for a new election and set the stage for a new level of confrontation.

Eyewitnesses said thousands of police and plainclothes militia members filled the streets Saturday, blocking protesters from gathering on the main thoroughfare running east from Revolution Square to Freedom Square.

English-language state TV confirmed that police used batons and other non-lethal weapons against what it called unauthorized demonstrations.

Amateur video showed dozens of Iranians running down a street after police fired tear gas. Shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" could be heard on the video, which could not be independently verified.

Helicopters hovered overhead, ambulances raced through the streets and black smoke rose over the city.

The witnesses told The Associated Press that between 50 and 60 protesters were hospitalized after beatings by police and pro-government militia. People could be seen dragging away comrades bloodied by baton strikes.

Tehran University, in the heart of downtown Tehran, was cordoned off by police and militia while students inside the university chanted "Death to the dictator!" witnesses said.

Shouts of "Viva Mousavi!" also could be heard. Witnesses said protesters wore black as a symbol of mourning for the dead and the allegedly stolen election, with wristbands in green, the emblem of Mousavi's self-described "Green Wave" movement.

"There was one instance of demonstrators successfully chasing away some security forces by sheer force of numbers and will," a Tehran resident wrote in an e-mail to Gary Sick, a Columbia University expert on Iran. "They raised a stirring cheer with hundreds of hands in the air. Moments later the security forces returned ten times more in force and pressed that crowd, that happy crowd, back into, of all places, Freedom Street."

All witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared government reprisals for speaking with the press. Iranian authorities have placed strict limits on the ability of foreign media to cover recent events, banning reporting from the street and allowing only phone interviews and information from officials sources such as state TV.

Police clashed with protesters around Tehran immediately after the presidential election and gunfire from a militia compound left at least seven dead, but further force remained in check until Saturday.

"I think the regime has taken an enormous risk in confronting this situation in the manner that they have," said Mehrdad Khonsari, a consultant to the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies.

"Now they'll have to hold their ground and hope that people don't keep coming back. But history has taught us that people in these situations lose their initial sense of fear and become emboldened by brutality," he said.

Mousavi and the two other candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad had been invited to meet with Iran's Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts close to Khamenei that oversees elections. Its spokesman told state TV that Mousavi and the reformist candidate Mahdi Karroubi did not attend.

The council has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities but Mousavi's supporters did not withdraw his demands for a new election.

Both houses of the U.S. Congress approved a resolution on Friday condemning "the ongoing violence" by the Iranian government and its suppression of the Internet and cell phones.

The government has blocked websites such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites that are conduits for Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence.

Text messaging has not been working normally for many days, and cell phone service in Tehran is frequently down.

In an interview taped Friday with CBS, Obama said he is very concerned by the "tenor and tone" of Khamenei's comments. He also said that how Iran's leaders "approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard" will signal "what Iran is and is not."

A spokesman for Mousavi said Friday the opposition leader was not under arrest but was not allowed to speak to journalists or stand at a microphone at rallies. Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf told the AP from Paris it was even becoming difficult to reach people close to Mousavi. He said he had not heard from Mousavi's camp since Khamenei's address.


Associated Press Writer William J. Kole in Cairo contributed to this report.

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