Teheran demonstrations turn violent

Protestors chant "Death to Dictatorship;" Mousavi tells supporters he's ready for "martyrdom."

iran protest 248.88 in streets (photo credit: AP)
iran protest 248.88 in streets
(photo credit: AP)
A week of massive street protests over the results of Iran's presidential elections escalated into open defiance of the entire regime on Saturday, when thousands took to the streets of Teheran chanting "Death to the Dictatorship." Ignoring the Friday warning by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to call off the protests and accept the official contention that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the June 12 elections, Reformist opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi insistently renewed his demand that the vote be annulled, and indicated that he was prepared for "martyrdom" should he lose his life as a consequence of his and his supporters' defiance. "We have received word from Mousavi that if he is arrested or disappears, the people should go out on a nationwide strike," one source in Teheran told this correspondent, and expressed the conviction that the former prime minister's life was now in danger. Another Iranian source, in comments reported by Reuters, said Mousavi had given a public address in southwestern Teheran in which he "said he was ready for martyrdom and that he would continue his path." Contacts in Teheran estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 had gathered in Teheran last night, even though Mousavi was telling supporters to stay at home for the time being, and were facing police who beat them and fired tear gas and water cannons at them. It was not clear if police were firing live ammunition, although voices audible in video footage from Teheran claimed live bullets were being fired. There were reports of several dozen casualties, and the video clips showed several protesters who appeared to be badly hurt. "They are killing my brothers," one man is heard crying in footage apparently filmed in Teheran on Saturday. Latest reports shortly before press time said protesters had set fire to a gas station in the capital. There were also reports of street battles in other Iranian cities, clashes at universities and sit-ins at mosques. "We can see the smoke and the helicopters from our house," said a source in Teheran. "They have closed down all the roads, trapping the people, who are being bombarded." People were chanting "Allah Akbar" and "We will kill those who kill our brothers" from their windows, balconies, and rooftops, he said. Most of Mousavi's supporters "are not leaving our homes," he went on. "God help those people [who have gone out] in Freedom Square. The last we heard, helicopters are pouring boiling hot water on the people," said another source. His account could not be confirmed, but other reports also spoke of boiling water being dropped from the helicopters, and of an undefined "acid" being sprayed at demonstrators by security forces on the streets. "Hospitals are overflowing and the embassies in Teheran have left their doors open to provide a haven for the injured for sanctuary," the source added. Iran's English-language state TV said that a suicide bombing at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, south of Teheran, had killed one person - the bomber - and wounded eight. But the report could be not independently evaluated due to government restrictions on journalists. Some sources in Teheran said they believed the bombing was either a fabrication or was staged by the regime, in a bid to stir outrage among Iranians who deeply revere the Shi'ite cleric who led the 1979 revolution that toppled the US-backed shah. "The bombing at the mausoleum never happened," said one contact. "If it had, the state media would show the damage. There is no proof… The regime is going to use this as a pretext to go after Mousavi." In Washington, President Barack Obama on Saturday challenged Iran's government to halt the "violent and unjust" crackdown on dissenters, using his bluntest language yet to condemn Teheran's post-election response. "We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people," Obama said in a written statement. "The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights." In a letter Saturday to Iran's Guardian Council, which investigates voting fraud allegations, Mousavi said some ballot boxes had been sealed before voting began in the disputed elections. 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, which was posted on one of his official Web sites. Mousavi did not make clear in the letter whether he endorsed the ongoing street protests in the wake of Khamenei's ominous demand Friday that opposition leaders put an end to the 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. 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. Teheran University, in the heart of downtown Teheran, 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. 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 Teheran immediately after the presidential election. Gunfire from a militia compound left at least seven dead, with some reports putting the death toll above 30. "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 US 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 Web sites 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 Teheran 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. In his speech Friday, Khamenei blamed the United States, Britain and "other enemies" for fomenting unrest. He said Iran would not see a second revolution like those that transformed the countries of the former Soviet Union. He said the election outcome was a vindication of the Islamic Republic and an earthquake for its enemies. "If the people did not trust in the system they would not participate in it," he said. "Iran's enemies are targeting the beliefs and trust of the people." He said: "These divisions come from the Zionist radio and the bad British radio trying to change the meaning of the election." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other European Union leaders expressed dismay over the threat of a crackdown. The British Foreign Office told Iran's charge d'affairs in London that Khamenei's comments were "unacceptable and had no basis in fact," a spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with policy. Obama has sought a measured reaction to avoid being drawn in as a meddler in Iranian affairs, but his comments have grown more pointed as the clashes intensified. "Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," the president said on Saturday, recalling a theme from the speech he gave in Cairo this month. "The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government," Obama 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." Jpost.com staff contributed to this report