By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 31, 2009
TEHRAN, July 30 -- Iranian security forces clashed with thousands of demonstrators across Tehran and struggled to maintain control Thursday after opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was prevented from visiting the graves of those killed in protests last month, including 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan, whose final moments were filmed and broadcast around the world.
The clashes were some of the most intense in recent weeks, suggesting that the anger that fueled demonstrations in the days after last month's disputed presidential election continues to run deep. With President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scheduled to be sworn in for another term next week, Thursday's demonstrations showed that almost 50 days after his apparent victory, authorities have not been successful in stamping out unrest.
Ahmadinejad won the June election in a landslide, according to official results, but opposition candidates say the vote was rigged. Protests in the first days after the election brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, shaking the foundations of the Islamic republic before a fierce government crackdown stalled the opposition's momentum.
Security forces worked aggressively Thursday to put down the protests, knowing that any major defeat in the streets could give new energy to the opposition. Police fired tear gas, attacked demonstrators with batons and smashed car windshields. But the protesters fought back, battling hand-to-hand with security forces in some of the most violent confrontations of the summer. In one case, three members of the much-feared voluntary militia known as the Basij were beaten with their own batons after a group of opposition activists pulled them off their motorcycles near a park. The motorcycles were set on fire, witnesses reported.
"The people have taken over the streets," one witness said Thursday evening before police managed to regain control.
Elsewhere, protesters could be seen throwing stones from an overpass onto security personnel riding motorcycles on a highway below, witnesses reported. Dumpsters were set on fire all around Tehran's sprawling Mosala prayer complex, where leaders of a movement calling for the annulment of the June 12 election had been denied permission to gather.
Iran's government has severely restricted the activities of journalists, and it was impossible to verify the authenticity of witness reports.
Riot police on Thursday cordoned off Agha Soltan's grave, which has become a point of pilgrimage for Mousavi supporters. When Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another defeated presidential candidate, arrived near the grave at the vast Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran, hundreds of supporters swarmed their sport-utility vehicle, witnesses reported.
"Regular riot police wearing black helmets and wielding batons attacked us," a witness said by phone. Several people reportedly fell into recently dug graves and were injured.
Two young men were arrested and placed inside a van, but a group of demonstrators broke its windows and were seen pulling the men out of the vehicle, another witness said.
Agha Soltan, who worked in a travel agency, was shot in the heart during an anti-government demonstration June 20. Two cellphone video clips showing her last moments were watched by millions of people worldwide, turning her into the face of Iran's movement against the disputed vote. Bystanders have blamed members of the Basij militia for the killing. Authorities say foreign journalists or protesters killed her.
Thursday marked the 40th day after her death. In Shiite Islam, which predominates in Iran, the third, seventh and 40th days after an individual's death are important times for commemoration.
A request by Mousavi and other opposition leaders for permission to hold a huge commemoration gathering Thursday was rejected by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by an ally of Ahmadinejad. Still, Mousavi had called upon his supporters to join him at the cemetery.
That call triggered a strong response by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been in control of Tehran since the election. Across the city, cars honked in support of the protesters, and security forces promptly smashed the vehicles' windows. Members of a family were seen being pulled out of their sedan by members of the Basij, after which the car was wrecked by blows from batons.
The protesters responded with violence of their own.
"I saw a man throw a brick right in the face of a riot police officer. He fell on the ground," one witness said.
Protesters lighted candles at Argentine Square, as drivers parked their cars at the normally bustling traffic circle. At other locations, demonstrators shouted slogans such as "Our Neda hasn't died. It's the government that has died," witnesses reported. They also chanted "Death to you" at the security forces, witnesses said.
Earlier, the deputy commander of police, Ahmad-Reza Radan, had said that "the police will harshly confront lawbreakers," according to the Fars News Agency. "The lawbreakers should have no doubt that the police will take any measure to secure the safety of the citizens."
People standing on a public stairway on Vali-e Asr Street taunted a member of the Basij to come up if he dared. The man, in his 30s and wearing a checkered black-and-white shirt, took out a revolver and started shooting but failed to hit anybody. "I saw the round hitting the walls behind the people. It was a miracle no one got hurt," one witness said.
Even as security forces cracked down, the government was trying to appease opponents. Police announced Thursday that they had paid damages to hundreds of people who had been mistreated during previous demonstrations, doling out $50,000 in total.
Earlier in the week, the government closed a major prison where arrested protesters had been held, citing substandard conditions. The closure came after reports emerged in recent days that three detainees had died, and it was interpreted as a gesture of reconciliation by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But opposition leaders said more was needed to heal the deep rifts in Iranian society.
"It's not enough to say that a substandard detention center has been closed. What does 'substandard' mean? Does it mean the fans weren't working or the toilets weren't clean? No! Murders have been committed, lives have been lost, blood has been spilt," former president Mohammad Khatami said Wednesday at a meeting with parliament members, according to Nowruznews, a Web site close to the opposition. "Our youth, men and women have been treated in such a way that had it been committed in prisons controlled by foreigners, everyone here would be shouting and denouncing it."
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.