By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 31, 2009; A08
TEHRAN -- Hundreds of thousands of government supporters rallied in several Iranian cities against the country's political opposition Wednesday, calling for the execution of the movement's two key leaders.
In Tehran, the main targets of the crowd's wrath were Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karroubi, 72, a Shiite cleric and former parliamentary speaker. The two men challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's June 12 presidential election and emerged as figureheads for a series of opposition street protests after they alleged that the voting was tainted by fraud.
The demonstrators -- who took to the streets in Shiraz, Arak and Qom, as well as in Tehran, the capital -- also denounced the United States and Britain, which the Ahmadinejad government has accused of fomenting the opposition protests.
More than 190 Mousavi supporters have been arrested in a new government crackdown that has been gathering steam since protests Sunday led to street battles with security forces, a Mousavi aide said. On Tuesday, Karroubi's team of government-provided bodyguards did not show up to protect the former presidential candidate, according to one of Karroubi's sons.
On Wednesday, the national police chief, Brig. Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, warned Mousavi supporters to expect harsh treatment if they joined illegal anti-government rallies. State-run news media reported that at least eight protesters were killed in the demonstrations Sunday, which coincided with Ashura, the peak of the most important Shiite religious commemoration of the year. Opposition sources said the death toll was higher.
Waving flags, holding up placards and chanting slogans, the pro-government demonstrators in Tehran swore allegiance to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and accused Mousavi, Karroubi and their supporters of terrorist acts.
The main speaker compared the opposition movement to a "bunch of goats and cows" who would fail to achieve anything. The crowd chanted in response, "Mousavi and Karroubi should be executed."
The government gave all civil servants and employees a day off to attend the rallies and organized buses to transport schoolchildren and supporters from rural areas to the protests. State television called on people to come out and protest the Sunday disturbances, which it said destroyed the sanctity of Ashura.
"They were clapping and whistling on a religious day," said one of the pro-government demonstrators, Mohammad Hossein Toobi, 22, an engineering student who wore black as a sign of mourning. "They threw stones at religious people. They must repent or die."
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.