By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 19, 2009
TEHRAN, June 18 -- A huge throng of opposition supporters, many clad in black, took to the streets of Tehran on Thursday to mourn protesters killed by a pro-government militia and back a challenge to the proclaimed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In response to a call by the leading opposition candidate in the presidential election last Friday, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the massive procession streamed toward Imam Khomeini Square largely in silence, then broke into chants against Ahmadinejad and alleged electoral fraud, witnesses said.
"Death to the dictator!" some chanted. "Where are our votes?"
Press TV, an English-language version of Iranian state television, said the crowd numbered in the "hundreds of thousands" and described the rally as "peaceful." It said Mousavi, in a brief address to the crowd, called for "calm and self-restraint." A Mousavi Web site estimated the gathering at more than 1 million people, the Associated Press reported.
On Friday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, plans to lead prayers at Tehran University, which happens only on special occasions. The official Islamic Republic News Agency said a "massive turnout of the Iranian nation" for the Friday prayers would demonstrate "solidarity and unity among Iranians."
Iran's elite Guardian Council on Thursday invited the four presidential candidates to a special meeting Saturday to review their concerns. The council, a 12-member panel of senior Islamic clergy and jurists, is charged with confirming the election results. It is investigating allegations of fraud and has agreed to a limited recount in places where irregularities are found.
"We decided to personally invite the esteemed candidates and those who have complaints regarding the election to take part in an extraordinary session of the Guardian Council to discuss their concerns with the members directly so that we will be able to make a decision," Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, a spokesman for the council, told Iran's state television. He said the council has received 646 complaints from Mousavi and two other candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad.
In a recorded statement broadcast by state television, Ahmadinejad appeared to back away from previous criticism of the opposition protesters, whom he has compared to angry soccer fans and "dust," the AP reported. He said he had been referring only to those who had rioted, "set fires and attacked people," adding: "The government is at everyone's service. We like everyone."
In Geneva, Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called on the government to nullify the election and hold a new one under United Nations supervision, the Reuters news agency reported. She also called for the release of about 500 people she said had been arrested in the past week. "In order that things calm down, these elections should be declared null and void, and new elections should be organized under the supervision of international institutions," she said after a meeting with the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
In a statement Thursday, Iran's Intelligence Ministry claimed it had foiled plots by "several terrorist groups" with connections to foreign enemies, including Israel and Americans in neighboring Iraq, to set off bombs in mosques, polling stations and other crowded places during the election.
The march Thursday in teeming South Tehran, the poorest part of the capital, was intended to show a broad base of support for the opposition, which Ahmadinejad and his backers have denounced as reflecting the interests of more affluent Iranians in North Tehran. Witnesses said the marchers included people from all walks of life, from impoverished laborers to well-off businessmen. "We have not come here to create unrest, we have come here to respect the blood of the martyrs, we have come here to regain our rights, we only want our votes," the pro-Mousavi Web site Kalemeh.ir quoted Mousavi as saying, using a bullhorn to address the crowds. Mousavi arrived in a column of sport-utility vehicles and spoke to the crowd while standing on the roof of his car with his wife.
Iranian news media, meanwhile, reported that a crackdown on prominent opposition figures, political analysts and journalists was continuing. Security forces on Wednesday detained opposition politician Ibrahim Yazdi, who served as foreign minister after the 1979 Islamic revolution, along with Mohammad Tavasoli, another veteran revolutionary, news services and Iranian newspapers said.
The semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that two children of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has sharply criticized Ahmadinejad, have been barred from leaving the country. Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh, addressed Mousavi supporters Tuesday during a demonstration held in defiance of a government ban.
The Guardian's Council's invitation to the presidential candidates appeared to be an attempt to quell the rising tensions in the city over the outcome of the election. The council had earlier interviewed representatives of each of the candidates. Khamenei, who last weekend endorsed Ahmadinejad's victory, has ordered the council to investigate the election results and called for a partial recount of ballots.
But the opposition has generally dismissed the recount effort as useless and has continued to appeal for street protests, leading to the largest unsanctioned demonstrations in the country since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
On Thursday, Mousavi and former president Mohammad Khatami sent a letter to the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, urging his help for the protesters. "Men and women are beaten up and injured, buildings are wrecked and things happen that are not in any way compatible with the Islamic Republic and will have no effect but to create cynicism in society against the system," they wrote, according to a posting on the Tabnak Web site, which is affiliated with Mohsen Rezai, one of the other presidential candidates. "We urge you to stand by your legal and religious duty and your sense of responsibility toward the civil rights of people and to spare no efforts to end the current worrying and provocative situation, stop violent action against people and release the arrested" activists.
Staff writers William Branigin and Glenn Kessler in Washington and special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.