By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 10, 2009
TEHRAN, July 9 -- Thousands of anti-government demonstrators were attacked with batons and tear gas by security forces Thursday as they tried to gather around Tehran University for the first protests in about two weeks, defying warnings from the authorities that they would crush any demonstrations.
The protests were called to commemorate an attack on students at the university in 1999. The demonstrators are using such anniversaries and special occasions to rally people in public. Demonstrators and Web sites said the next possible date is the second-term inauguration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which is expected next month. Several national and religious celebrations also are coming up in the months ahead.
At the same time, the authorities also showed their determination to prevent such protests.
An eyewitness said army conscripts carrying plastic shields and batons filled the area in front of Tehran University. Two middle-aged women reportedly walked up to the security forces, asking them mockingly whether it was already 5 p.m., the proposed start time for the demonstration. "Oh, still 20 minutes left," one woman told them. "That means that you still have time to leave," she added, laughing.
But the mood quickly changed when plainclothes security personnel started shoving people into unmarked vans with blacked-out windows. "A girl started screaming, and three men started beating her very hard with batons as she was lying on the ground, swearing at them, calling them dirtbags," an eyewitness said. When groups of people started shouting at the men, a young bearded official in civilian clothes ran toward the crowds, pulled out a revolver and started shooting in the air. "Everybody ran away into the nearby alleys," the eyewitness said.
At Ferdowsi Square, a roundabout in central Tehran, teenage members of the pro-government Basij militia stood shoulder to shoulder in a huge circle, wearing oversize black helmets and camouflage vests and carrying wooden handles of shovels and axes.
The security forces managed to prevent large crowds from gathering, by using tear gas, wielding batons and firing shots in the air. "They were constantly coming from both sides, surrounding us. We couldn't do much," a demonstrator said.
Many shouted slogans in favor of Mir Hossein Mousavi, an opposition leader who has been calling for an annulment of the disputed June 12 election in which Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide winner.
As darkness fell, more and more special riot police belonging to the Revolutionary Guard Corps -- nicknamed "robocops" because of their black protective gear -- flooded the streets. There were reports of people setting trash cans on fire in several neighborhoods.
Mousavi did not call for protests Thursday. But the capital had been abuzz with calls for a huge demonstration around Enghelab Square. On Web sites, in e-mails and in fliers, there were calls to meet up along nine routes leading to the square for what seemed to be spontaneous gatherings. The government accuses foreign governments, media and groups of organizing the protests and has asserted that people dressed as members of the Basij were beating protesters.
On one street, a student named Hadi said in a telephone interview, "robocop-style policemen attacked a group of people. The crowd ran off, only to be blocked by a group of Basijis. Instead of turning away from them, the crowd actually charged the Basijis and started fighting and beating them up."
The Iranian government has complained that in the aftermath of the election, several Farsi-language satellite broadcasting stations have been exhorting people to protest, including the U.S.-funded Voice of America Persian News Network and a similar operation run by the British Broadcasting Corp. "The enemies of the Iranian nation are angry with the post-election calm in Iran and try to damage it through their TV channels," said Morteza Tamadon, governor of the Tehran province and a strong supporter of Ahmadinejad.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military on Thursday released five Iranian officials who were detained in January 2007 in northern Iraq on suspicion of aiding Iraqi Shiite insurgents, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Iranian officials said.
"We have no information yet about their physical or psychological condition or where they were kept the past two years," said Amir Arshadi, a spokesman for the Iranian Embassy. "We are still waiting for them."
The U.S. military had no comment.
Iranian leaders have repeatedly demanded the release of the officials, calling their detention a kidnapping that violated diplomatic protocols. At the time of their arrest, U.S. authorities said the men included the operations chief and other members of Iran's elite Quds Force, which was accused of arming and training Iraqi insurgents. Officials in Washington and Baghdad maintained that the men had no diplomatic status.
The surprise release came a day after unusually positive comments about President Obama by a top adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said Obama had tried to remain silent on the country's election outcome.
The comments suggest that Iran's decision makers are still interested in discussing possible diplomatic relations with the Obama administration. "America accepts a nuclear Iran, but Britain and France cannot stand a nuclear Iran," Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, said in an interview on state television on Wednesday.
Correspondent Anthony Shadid and special correspondents Qais Mizher and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.