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Iran battles reinvigorated opposition

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 28, 2009; A01

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.

The latest round of demonstrations began Dec. 7 and has been building since then with protests at universities nationwide. The protests spread last week after the death of Hussein Ali Montazeri, a grand ayatollah who was considered one of the leading dissidents in the religious establishment.

Officials were quick to describe the anti-government demonstrations as small and insignificant acts staged by groups of "rioters." The demonstrators, the government said, had deliberately exploited Sunday's ceremonies marking the death of the third Shiite imam, Hussein, whose small band of supporters fought a losing battle against a powerful and repressive army during the 7th century.

Sunday's religious commemoration, called Ashura, marks the 10th and final day of mourning for Hussein. It not only defines Shiite Islam but also drives politics in Iran, with its themes of martyrdom and suffering in the name of a just cause.

Both sides in this year's struggle have laid claim to Hussein's mantle of victimhood. Members of the opposition say they are being oppressed after what amounts to a government-backed coup by the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps; government supporters say that the opposition is a puppet of hostile foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, that want to impose their will on Iran.

Fighting in the streets

Demonstrators on Sunday wrapped themselves in the symbolism of the day's commemorations, shouting slogans that compared Iran's leaders to Yazid, Hussein's arch-enemy. "This is a month of blood. Basijis will die!" the crowds shouted.

At an overpass above Azadi Street, protesters flashed victory signs and sang songs from the 1979 Islamic revolution. Young men, some with their faces covered, shoved burning trash bins toward security forces, who quickly ran. Later, about a dozen members of the Revolutionary Guard, recognizable by their uniforms, dared the protesters to throw stones at them, while assaulting the crowd with paintball bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. After reinforcements arrived, firing in the air from their cars, the Guard forces managed to push back the hundreds of protesters that had gathered.

Similar scenes unfolded at several crossings along the centrally located Azadi and Enghelab streets, witnesses reported. Large clouds of black smoke billowed into the air as fires erupted across the city. Motorists created a din by honking their horns in solidarity.

Internet service was briefly cut off in Tehran on Sunday but was restored later in the evening. The government, as it has since June, imposed controls on the media, banning reporters and photographers from the rallies.

Abbas Abdi, a political analyst, said that a solution must be found quickly in order to stop the growing unrest.

"Both sides are losing control and this will ultimately be to the detriment of both of them," Abdi said. "This situation is unstable and cannot continue like this."

Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.

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