Iran protests smaller but met with violence

McClatchy NewspapersJune 20, 2009 

Supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi set fire to a barricade and hurl stones during a protest in Tehran on Saturday.

AP

Iran descended further into chaos Saturday, as security forces used guns, tear gas and metal batons against defiant protesters, protesters fought back and the toll of dead and injured mounted in the country's escalating post-election crisis.

Videos and pictures posted on the Internet, and which appeared authentic, showed scenes of violence. In one, a woman lay in the street, surrounded by a crowd, her face covered in blood. Other reports showed security forces firing into the air to disperse protesters and tossing canisters of tear gas.

But there were also images of protesters battling back — hurling stones, chasing police away and displaying security forces' helmets like trophies.

Not all of the reports could be independently confirmed given the news blackout Iran's government has attempted to impose on the country.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, sharpened his criticism of an Iranian government that he had hoped to engage in diplomacy.

"The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching," Obama said in a written statement. "We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people."

"The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government ," the president said. "If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion."

Obama has responded cautiously to the crisis so far, hoping not to provide fodder for the Iranian regime's attempts to blame Iran's worst political unrest in 30 years on the United States and other outside forces.

In Tehran, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi spoke to a rally and called for nationwide strikes and protests if he were to be arrested, as many as of his close allies have been. "I am ready for martyrdom," Mousavi reportedly told the crowd.

The continued protests, which seemed smaller than those earlier this week, came despite a stern warning from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Friday warning that those who continued demonstrating would be responsible for bloodshed.

Khamenei is backing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom the government claimed won a landslide victory in a June 12 presidential election that the opposition said was rigged.

There have been shouts of "Death to Khamenei!" reportedly heard among the protestors in recent days. Until this week, public criticism of Khamenei was virtually unheard of.

Mousavi released a new letter Saturday to the 12-member Guardian Council, which oversees elections, asking that the election results be nullified. He and another opposition candidate, cleric Mahdi Karroubi, did not attend a meeting of the Council to which they'd been invited.

State-run television reported that a suicide bomber killed himself and injured three others at the massive shrine to revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei outside Tehran, scaling back and earlier report that two had been killed and eight injured.

That report could not be independently confirmed, and it was not clear if it could be part of a government-inspired attempt to discredit the protesters. The regime has consistently blamed the unrest on foreign interference.

The toll of dead and wounded in the protests could not be accurately gauged.

One man in Tehran, communicating by email and asking not to be named, said he had heard reports of 30 dead and 200 injured.

He described thousands of police between Enghelab (Revolution) and Azadi (Freedom) squares, the planned route of Saturday's demonstration. The air was thick with smoke from burning tires, and stones used by protesters against the security forces lay on wet streets, he reported.

There were conflicting reports as to whether foreign embassies had opened their doors to shelter the wounded, and also reports that the government militia known as the basiji had raided hospitals to take the names of the wounded.

Iran's Islamic regime has tried to impose a tight noose on news from the country, arresting Iranian journalists, confining foreign reporters to their offices and homes, and attempting to block text messaging, cell phone service and the use of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter.

But news has seeped out nonetheless.

A dramatic video aired on BBC's Persian television broadcast showed Iran's security services apparently firing into the air near crowds as large fires burned in the street. Another video posted on the Internet showed riot police retreating in the face of demonstrators.

A third video, posted on Facebook and YouTube, showed the young woman covered in blood. An account posted on Mousavi's Facebook page by a man describing himself as a doctor said the woman had been watching the protests, not participating in them, when she was shot by a member of the basiji. She died within two minutes, the man said.

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