Thousands of Iranians march in defiance as death toll reaches 32

McClatchy NewspapersJune 17, 2009 

TEHRAN, Iran — Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded Tehran Wednesday in the fifth day of protests to demand the annulment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, and more nationwide protests appeared to be in store.

Defying a government ban on the demonstrations, Ahmadinejad's main election rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, called for massive rallies around the country Thursday to mourn the dead in previous days' protests, which a leading Iranian human rights group said numbered 32.

The government continued its crackdown on the opposition, reportedly arresting leading journalists and politicians. It expelled foreign reporters on temporary visas, ordered Tehran-based reporters to stay in their offices and threatened legal action against Iranians who've been filling the information void by e-mailing videos, news reports and pictures abroad. A McClatchy reporter left Tehran on Wednesday.

The regime also accused the U.S. of meddling in the crisis by making "interventionist" statements, which the Obama administration promptly denied. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday seemed to partially embrace the demands of Mousavi's supporters, saying that the "people of Iran deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted."

More turmoil appeared likely. Mousavi, who claims he was cheated out of victory by massive vote rigging, urged his supporters to wear black to mourn the results and the dead. In a statement on his Web site, he singled out the eight who were shot dead Monday by members of the Basij, a hard-line volunteer militia that's loyal to Ahmadinejad.

His call for a new protest was in defiance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who earlier in the week told Mousavi to pursue his election fraud complaint "legally and peacefully" through an investigation by the unelected 12-member Guardian Council.

The election outcome and the subsequent protests have exposed the fiercest power struggle in Iran's highly complex political system since the clergy gained power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the late Shah Reza Pahlavi.

"This is the first time (since 1979) that one part of the political establishment is arrayed against another part of the political establishment," said Muhammad Sahimi, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California and a commentator on Iranian politics.

Deeply conservative clerics who maintain close ties to top bureaucrats and intelligence and security officials who began as foot soldiers of the revolution, are seen as lining up behind Ahmadinejad, but their more moderate rivals led by older leaders of the revolution, such as former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are backing Mousavi.

Khamenei, as the unelected supreme leader, is supposed to preserve order and balance, but some experts said he's sided with Ahmadinejad.

The longer the power struggle goes on, the greater the chaos in the streets could grow, confounding any predictions as to the eventual outcome, said Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group in Washington.

"A couple of days ago, all this was inconceivable," Parsi said.

Iranians persevered in accessing the Internet, posting photographs, videos and brief messages on developments on a nearly real-time basis via Twitter, Facebook and other online outlets.

Videos and pictures showed hundreds of thousands of protesters marching along a major thoroughfare and an overpass in Tehran, many wearing armbands, scarves and ribbons in green, Mousavi's trademark color.

In Seoul, South Korea, members of the Iranian national soccer team showed their support for Mousavi by wearing green wristbands during a World Cup qualifying match in which they tied South Korea 1-1. Fans in the stands held up cards that said in English: "Where is my vote?" — the slogan of the protest movement.

Video shot outside the stadium showed young Iranians, some with painted faces, demonstrating in support of Mousavi. A large banner read, "Go To Hell Dictator."

"We want a peaceful rally to protest the unhealthy trend of the election and realize our goal of annulling the results," Mousavi said in his online statement.

He called for "a new presidential election that will not repeat the shameful fraud from the previous election."

The Interior Ministry, which oversaw the election, said that Ahmadinejad had won 62.63 percent of the vote while Mousavi took 33.75 percent, despite predictions that the record turnout and Iran's deep economic crisis would drive Mousavi to victory.

A leading human rights group said it had confirmed reports that security forces had killed at least 32 people since Sunday. The Association of Human Rights Activists in Iran said in a statement on its Web site that the toll appeared to be higher.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps, a parallel military force controlled by Khamenei, warned that it would take action against Iranians who've been sending e-mails, videos and pictures to the outside world via the Internet.

The regime blamed foreign governments and journalists for fueling the massive protests. The Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to Iran — who represents U.S. diplomatic interests, to protest "interventionist" statements by U.S. officials, according to state-run Iranian news agencies.

(Landay reported from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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