By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 21, 2009
TEHRAN, June 20 -- Fiery chaos broke out in downtown Tehran on Saturday as security forces blocked streets and used tear gas, water cannons and batons to break up a demonstration against the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Security forces were seen firing warning shots into the air, but there were also unconfirmed reports that several people were hit by gunfire.
President Obama, in his strongest comments to date on a political standoff that has paralyzed Iran for a week, urged the Iranian government "to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people."
Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who asserts that he was cheated of victory in the June 12 election, said his supporters in the streets were "facing unrighteous liars."
Mousavi, in a statement posted on his campaign Web site, seemed to seek to avoid a direct confrontation with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who warned protesters Friday of potential "bloodshed" if they continued mass street demonstrations. Mousavi said the way to restore calm on the streets was for the government to "not only allow for peaceful protests, but to encourage them."
Amid severe restrictions on news media reporting of the protests and conflicting accounts coming out of Tehran on Saturday, some reports suggested Mousavi was taking a more confrontational stance. The Reuters news agency reported him as saying he was "ready for martyrdom" and vowing to continue his protest movement despite Khamenei's warning. But with foreign journalists prohibited from leaving their offices to witness the protests, those comments could not be independently verified.
The struggle on the streets of Iran continued to reverberate around the world Saturday as tens of thousands of Iranian exiles from across Europe and beyond gathered in a Paris suburb to cheer on the demonstrators in Tehran and demand an end to Iran's religion-based political system.
"Regarding the presidential elections, I want to recall that we fully agree with annulling the results of the election masquerade, which we had called on people to boycott from the very beginning," Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which organized the event, said in a 90-minute speech interrupted by banner-waving supporters shouting, "Down with the dictators."
In Tehran, the street demonstrations were smaller than the massive protests that have jammed the capital for nearly a week. Khamenei's warning and a huge array of police on foot and motorcycles, as well as the pro-government Basij militia, clearly deterred some protesters. Nonetheless, thousands took to the streets chanting slogans such as "Death to the dictator" and "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") before police fired tear gas and water cannons to break up the gathering. News services estimated the crowd at about 3,000.
The number of casualties from running street clashes between security forces and protesters was not immediately clear. But one witness said he saw three bodies being loaded into vans.
Residents of the area described firefights after protesters grabbed weapons from security forces. They also said a mosque was set on fire by people they described as hooligans. Other witnesses said they saw people being shot.
The Associated Press reported that 50 to 60 protesters were seriously beaten by police and militiamen and taken to a hospital in central Tehran. Demonstrators could be seen dragging away comrades bloodied by baton strikes, the AP said.
Iran's official Press TV, an English-language version of state television, reported "sporadic clashes . . . between security forces and the protesters." The acting police chief, Brig. Gen. Ahmad-Reza Radan, said that the protests were illegal and that police would deal with them "firmly and with determination."
In a separate development, state-run news media reported that a suicide bomber blew himself up near a shrine to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. They said the blast killed the bomber and injured three people.
Riot police on motorcycles aimed to head off marchers as Shiite Muslim clerics who had joined the protesters tried to lead them to Revolution Square, witnesses said.
Women clad in chadors pleaded with security forces to stop fighting the people, witnesses said. Some of the women chanted, "Help us, security force," as the police pushed protesters back.
Security forces used the Labor Ministry as a base from which they rode the motorcycles toward the crowds, and police blocked off several main roads leading to Azadi Street, where the protesters had planned to gather.
As water cannons blasted the Mousavi supporters on Azadi Street, fighting erupted in nearby alleys, witnesses said. Dumpsters were set on fire and used as barricades between youths and security forces, who pelted one another with stones.
In one alley, a middle-aged man held up a police baton that he said he had taken from security forces. Farther down the same road, a member of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, dressed in black overalls and a helmet, fired several rounds into the air with an assault rifle, witnesses said.
Large plumes of smoke filled the sky as the sun was setting. Youths said a gasoline station had been set ablaze.
In an interview on state television, a top police official, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, said his men were preventing Mousavi supporters from gathering in central Tehran. "People are tired," he said. "They want to run their business. People want to come to the streets, to travel, to fly somewhere, to go to hospital, but they are stuck in traffic for hours and their rights are denied. This process is boring, disturbing and unbearable."
The confrontations came a day after Khamenei, Iran's ultimate political and religious authority, expressed his full support for the reelection of Ahmadinejad, rejecting allegations of vote fraud and declaring that foreign "enemies," including the United States, were behind the demonstrations.
By placing his seal of approval on the election's official results, Khamenei significantly raised the stakes for Iran's political opposition, which must now concede the election or be seen as challenging the supreme leader directly. So far, Mousavi and his supporters have questioned the election's validity but not the country's theocratic system of governance.
In a dramatic speech before thousands of worshipers at a Friday prayer service, Khamenei warned that the leaders of the protests will be held "directly responsible" for any bloodshed that results from continued demonstrations.
Ahmadinejad on Saturday publicly thanked Khamenei for effectively endorsing his reelection. In his first public statement since Khamenei's comments at Friday prayers, Ahmadinejad said: "As a small child and chosen server by the great Iranian nation, I feel I need to cordially thank you for the good decision . . . and making helpful comments and powerfully announcing the people's rightful stances on important issues of the day." In a message to Khamenei carried by several local news agencies, the president added: "You wave the flag of honor over the head of our nation. You stood against the oppressors."
Mousavi, meanwhile, renewed his call to cancel the results of the election in an open letter published on his campaign Web site. He said that "disgusting measures" to rig the election were planned months ahead of the balloting.
"All these counts of irregularities plus many others that were mentioned in previous letters . . . are reasons to cancel the election nationwide," Mousavi wrote in a letter to the Guardian Council, a group charged with certifying elections.
"The result was reversed," Mousavi wrote. He gave six detailed complaints to the council, which had invited him to present his case Saturday morning. He cited in particular the use of mobile ballot boxes, which are voting booths moved around on the backs of pickup trucks.
"The number of mobile ballot boxes was increased significantly, and there were no monitors present at those stations," Mousavi said. "Our representatives were not allowed to be present at the mobile ballot boxes during transportation. Considering the fact that there were 14,000 of those, that gave them the ability to carry out any violation of any sort.
"The ballot boxes were sealed before we could verify that they were not filled up before election day," he wrote.
Mousavi, whose whereabouts Saturday were not immediately known, complained of a large number of extra voting slips even though they quickly ran out in Tehran on election day.
"There were 45.2 million eligible voters, and 59.6 million voting slips with serial numbers were printed," he said. "A day before the elections, there were millions more printed without serial numbers. The fact that there were so many extra voting slips itself is questionable. There is no way we could have run out of voting slips so early into the elections."
Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Lexie Verdon in Washington and correspondent Edward Cody in Paris contributed to this report.