Iran battles reinvigorated opposition

In Iran on Sunday, anti-government protests, held to coincide with the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura, became violent between demonstrators and police under the command of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. At least five demonstrators have been killed, including Ali Mousavi, 32, the nephew of opposition political leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 28, 2009

TEHRAN -- The intense clashes in several Iranian cities that left at least five protesters dead and scores more injured Sunday have raised the stakes for both sides as the government seeks to contain

a newly revitalized opposition movement.

The street battles took place on one of the holiest days in the Shiite Muslim calendar, a fact that is likely to give even deeper resonance to Sunday's deaths and that could help spawn further demonstrations in the days ahead. Opposition Web sites reported that as many as 12 protesters had been killed, including the nephew of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The government conceded there had been five deaths in Tehran but denied responsibility and said the police had not used their weapons.

That account conflicted with those of numerous opposition sources, which reported that security forces had at various points opened fire on the crowds. Witnesses also reported that demonstrators, who numbered in the tens of thousands, fought back with unusual force, kicking and punching police officers and torching government buildings and vehicles.

In Washington, the White House condemned what it called the "violent and unjust suppression" of civilians by the government.

"Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States," White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.

After a relatively quiet autumn, the wide-scale protests Sunday recalled some of the largest and most contentious demonstrations from the summer, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets after a June presidential election that the government claims was won by the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a landslide but that the opposition believes was stolen.

On Sunday, demonstrators fanned out across the center of Iran's capital, Tehran, with many fighting vigorously as security forces sought to disperse the crowds. Police said that at least 300 "conspirators" had been arrested and that 10 police officers had been wounded.

Amid thick smoke from fires and tear gas that blanketed key parts of the city, Tehran became the scene of hand-to-hand combat between security forces and the protesters. At one point, according to witnesses, members of the pro-government Basij militia fired their handguns while ramming a car through two barriers set up by demonstrators. Elsewhere, the protesters, who in recent months had run whenever security forces moved in to disrupt demonstrations, began to attack riot police, pelting them with rocks and setting some of their vehicles ablaze.

"The people's protests have become deeper, wider and more radical," said Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, an opposition supporter and a sociology professor at Tehran University. He said to expect the government to respond with an even greater crackdown than the one over the summer. "Everything will, from now on, be harsher, tougher, stronger," he said.

Jalaeipour suggested an alternative that he said the government is unlikely to pursue: "The correct solution for the government is to answer the requests of the opposition, not to stand in front of them and prevent them."

Growing protests

Since June, the opposition has demanded that the results of the election be annulled and that a new vote be held. But their movement had appeared to lose steam during the fall, when a pervasive government crackdown prevented protesters from taking to the streets in large numbers.

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