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Obama urges Mideast allies to 'get out ahead' of protests, denounces Iranian crackdown

By William Branigin, Thomas Erdbrink and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 2:18 PM

President Obama on Tuesday warned Middle Eastern nations, including longtime U.S. allies, that they need to "get out ahead" of surging aspirations for democracy, and he sharply criticized what he described as Iran's hypocritical response to protests.

In a news conference at the White House, his first of the year, Obama said governments in the region "can't maintain power through coercion."

"The world is changing," he said in a message directed to Middle East leaders. "You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity. . . . You can't be behind the curve."

In particular, Obama sought to draw a distinction between Egypt's largely peaceful popular uprising and the brutality of the Iranian government in cracking down on opposition demonstrators.

He spoke after Iranian hard-liners called Tuesday for the arrest or execution of opposition leaders involved in street protests the day before, as gatherings of Egypt-inspired demonstrators in Bahrain and Yemen again resulted in bloodshed. Violent protests erupted in all three countries Monday as the revolutionary fervor unleashed by the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rippled across the Middle East, propelling people onto the streets to demand change from a spectrum of autocratic regimes.

In Tehran, at least one person was killed during the banned opposition rally, officials told the student news agency ISNA on Tuesday. The demonstration was the largest in Iran since a crackdown on the opposition 14 months ago.

In Washington, Obama told reporters: "We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region saying, 'Let's look at Egypt's example, as opposed to Iran's example.' You know, I find it ironic that you've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran."

As in Egypt, Obama said, people in Iran "should be able to express their opinions and their grievances and seek a more responsive government." He said he hopes Iranians continue to "have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government." However, "America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt," he cautioned.

"What we can do is lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves," Obama said.

While the United States is "concerned about stability throughout the region," it has sent a message "to friend and foe alike," the president said. Part of this message, he said, is "that if you are governing these countries, you've got to get out ahead of change."

As a result of events in Egypt and, earlier, Tunisia, governments in the Middle East and North Africa "are starting to understand this," Obama said. "And my hope is is that they can operate in a way that is responsive to this hunger for change, but always do so in a way that doesn't lead to violence."

In Tehran earlier Tuesday, pro-government legislators at an open session of the Iranian parliament demanded that opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former reformist president Mohammad Khatami be held responsible for Monday's clashes between protesters and security forces, the Associated Press reported.

Pumping their fists in the air, the lawmakers chanted, "Death to Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami."

"We believe the people have lost their patience and demand capital punishment," 221 lawmakers said in a statement.

In the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, thousands of demonstrators marched Monday to call for reforms to their hereditary monarchy and clashed with police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. In Yemen, a key U.S. counterterrorism ally, government supporters armed with sticks and knives attacked pro-democracy demonstrators calling for the ouster of the country's dictatorial president.

Crowds massed in both Bahrain and Yemen again on Tuesday, with one person killed in Bahrain, the Associated Press reported. The death in Bahrain came when security forces fired tear gas and bird shot at thousands of people joining a funeral procession for a man who was slain in Monday's protests.

Thousands of protesters poured into a main square in Bahrain's capital waving Bahraini flags and chanting: "No Sunnis, no Shiites. We are all Bahrainis," AP said. In a clear sign of concern over the widening crisis, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa made a rare national TV address, offering condolences for the protest-related deaths, pledging an investigation and promising to push ahead with reforms, which include loosening state controls on the media and Internet.

In the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, hundreds of anti-government demonstrators and government loyalists fought with rocks and batons on Tuesday in a fifth straight day of political unrest. Four of the anti-government protesters were wounded, two of them in the head, Reuters news agency said.

But it was in a non-Arab country, Iran, that the fallout from Egypt's uprising seemed to be most acutely felt on Monday. In Tehran, large crowds of protesters defied tear gas Monday to march down a major thoroughfare, chanting "Death to the dictator." It was the biggest demonstration in the Iranian capital since the government effectively crushed the opposition movement in December 2009.

The crowds, which numbered in the tens of thousands, suggested that the seemingly cowed Green Movement that emerged to challenge Iran's theocratic regime after disputed elections in June 2009 had been inspired by the success of Egypt's revolutionaries. Many protesters wore green ribbons, the symbol of Iran's opposition movement.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the Iranian demonstrators, saying White House officials "very clearly and directly support the aspirations" of the protesters. She also accused the Tehran government of hypocrisy for claiming to support pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt while squelching dissent at home.

Clinton's comments appeared to signal a shift in tone by an administration that previously refrained from directly endorsing the Iranian opposition out of fear that U.S. support would backfire on the protesters.

"We think that there needs to be a commitment to open up the political system in Iran to hear the voices of the opposition and civil society," Clinton told reporters after a meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

'We are here for Iran'

Throughout the day in Tehran, people converged on Azadi, or Freedom, Square in the heart of the city, the symbolic epicenter of the protest movement that brought millions of people out on the streets in the summer of 2009. Some witnesses said the Monday protests drew more than 100,000 people.

The demonstration had been called more than a week in advance by Mousavi, the de facto leader of the opposition movement and former presidential challenger. Mousavi was placed under house arrest Monday, opposition Web sites said, joining another opposition leader, former parliament speaker Karroubi, whose house arrest was reported by the sites Thursday.

Police were deployed in smaller numbers than usual in the morning, enabling protesters to gather, and at one point in the afternoon, as the numbers swelled, the security forces appeared to retreat, witnesses said. But by nightfall, as more and more people converged, there were reports that members of the feared pro-government Basij militia had taken to the streets on their trademark motorcycles and were beating demonstrators with batons.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that at least one person had been killed and several wounded in a "shooting incident" connected with the protests, and there were reports of violent clashes in other Iranian cities.

Iran has had strained relations with Egypt since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, after a popular uprising against the U.S.-backed shah that many in Iran and beyond have compared to the revolution in Egypt.

Iran's leaders have made numerous statements over the past few weeks in support of the Egyptian protesters, and state media have hailed the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as "new Islamic revolutions."

At the same time, Iran's Green Movement has clearly been seeking an opportunity to assert itself since the security apparatus overwhelmed its efforts to mobilize people on the streets.

"We are here for Iran," one protester told a witness to the demonstration Monday. "What they did in Egypt, we have been trying since 2009. If the government supports them, why are we not allowed to protest on our streets?"

Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, said the size of the crowds on Monday showed "that this protest movement is alive and kicking."

"Anyone who said the Green Movement was a flash in the pan was way off base," Ansari said.

The protests coincided with a visit to Tehran by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who expressed support for the Egyptian protests in a comment that could also have been taken as applying to the demonstration in Iran. Turkey, which enjoys a close relationship with Iran as well as the United States, has emerged in recent years as an increasingly influential regional power, whose democracy is hailed as a model by many in the region.

"When leaders and heads of countries do not pay attention to the demands of their nations, the people themselves take action to achieve their demands," Gul said at a packed news conference, according to Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency and other reports.

In Syria, there were signs that the government was cracking down on the opposition. A court there on Monday sentenced a 19-year-old blogger, under arrest since 2009, to five years in jail, after ruling that she had illegally revealed information to a foreign country.

Bahrain, Yemen roiling

The protest in Bahrain had also been called ahead of Mubarak's resignation on Friday, with campaigns on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook billing it a "Day of Rage," echoing the way Egypt's revolt was organized.

News photographs showed pictures of people who had purportedly been injured by riot police in the protests in the capital, Manama, and there were reports that thousands had taken to the streets in other towns across the kingdom. It was the most serious unrest in the normally placid emirates and kingdoms of the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula since the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings.

Bahrain is considered more vulnerable than most other regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, because of its restive 70 percent Shiite majority, which has long chafed under the nation's Sunni monarchy.

But as the first Persian Gulf nation to discover oil, and the first to be running out of it, Bahrain confronts problems that other gulf nations may also eventually confront, including a growing fiscal deficit and an expanding population that cannot find jobs, said Jane Kinninmont of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

"You could see Bahrain having an impact on Kuwait and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia," where there is a Shiite majority, she said. "Bahrain is being watched quite closely there. Bahrain is different because of its sectarian makeup, but it also has problems that other gulf countries are going to have to deal with," Kinninmont said.

The protests in Bahrain, as well as Yemen, have nonetheless been much smaller than those that forced Mubarak to resign. The protest in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on Monday was less well-attended, but also more violent, than others in the city in recent weeks, highlighting the potential for instability in a nation reeling from internal conflicts, deep poverty and a resurgent branch of al-Qaeda.

A few thousand protesters marched in Sanaa, chanting "Hey Ali, get out," a reference to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has governed the impoverished nation since 1978, three years longer than Mubarak ruled Egypt.

But they were confronted by a crowd of government supporters waving pictures of Saleh and chanting slogans in his support. The Saleh supporters chased the pro-democracy demonstrators with sticks, knives and stones, reportedly injuring dozens.

slyl@washpost.com erdbrinkt@washpost.com

Erdbrink reported from Tehran. Sly reported from Baghdad. Special correspondent Hakim al-Masmari in Sanaa, correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo and staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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