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As Egypt uprising inspires Middle East, Iran sees biggest protests in a year

By Thomas Erdbrink and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; A01

TEHRAN - Violent protests erupted in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain on 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 the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, thousands of demonstrators marched 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, in the fourth straight day of protests in that troubled Arab nation.

But it was in a non-Arab country, Iran, that the fallout from Egypt's uprising seemed to be most acutely felt. In Tehran, large crowds of protesters defied tear gas 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 Mir Hossein 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 Mehdi 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

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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