Iranian security forces clash with protesters backing detained opposition leaders

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 3:23 PM

TEHRAN - Iranian security forces clashed with demonstrators and shot tear gas Tuesday to break up a rally in support of two opposition leaders who have been targeted in a new crackdown on anti-government protests, an opposition Web site reported.

Witnesses said large crowds marched along the main Enghelab (Revolution) Street, where large numbers of professional and voluntary security forces were stationed.

"They occasionally stop us, but we are still here," a participant said by telephone.

In clashes at major intersections and squares along the six-mile-long boulevard, security forces fired tear gas at the demonstrators, and protesters set fire to trash cans, witnesses said.

Opposition Web sites reported similar anti-government protests, clashes and arrests in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad, in the northeast, and in Shiraz in the south-central part of the country.

The semiofficial Tabnak Web site wrote that "groups of anti-revolutionaries . . . tried to create riots in busy parts of Tehran, but they were not supported by the people and were quickly dispersed."

Internet service was cut in parts of Tehran during the protest, although cellphones were still working.

"I have to run," one man said during the demonstration. "There is a cloud of tear gas coming our way."

Another witness, who said he had been wounded by a member of the Basij paramilitary force, spoke of packed streets and increasingly daring protesters.

"Everybody would boo at Basijis when they zipped by on their motorcycles waving Iranian and religious flags, whereas they were friendly and close with the police," said the witness, who gave his name only as Ahmad.

The demonstration was to protest the reported arrests of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. It was called by an anonymous opposition council through Web sites belonging to the two former presidential candidates.

Iran's chief prosecutor said Monday that the two main opposition leaders were placed under "restrictive circumstances" and not allowed to receive visitors or make phone calls.

Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei said Mousavi, 68, a former prime minister, and Karroubi, 73, a former speaker of parliament, were isolated.

"The first step has been taken," Mohseni-Ejei said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency, "which was to block their relations, including their comings and goings and their telephone and non-telephone relations." He said other measures could be taken, if necessary, but he did not give details on what those measures might be. The prosecutor also did not specify whether the two opposition leaders were held inside their own houses or somewhere else.

But the opposition Web site reported Monday that both Mousavi and Karroubi, who held high positions in Iran's political system in the past, and their wives were secretly transferred to the Heshmatieh military prison facility in the eastern part of Tehran.

Noting that officials had made vague statements regarding the whereabouts of Mousavi and Karroubi, the Web site, which is connected to Mousavi, said it had "reliable" information that they were, in fact, arrested.

An unidentified judiciary official denied the report, telling the semiofficial Fars News Agency that both men were held inside their own homes.

"They are at their homes at the moment, and the only restriction imposed on them is that they are banned from contacting suspicious elements," Fars quoted him as saying. The official accused foreign-based Farsi-language satellite channels, such as the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation, of spreading "false news" in order to support the opposition.

Several politicians and clerics have called for the death sentence for the two men, who became opposition leaders after they disputed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's June 2009 election victory. Protests, which started after the 2009 elections, lasted for months. Dozens of people were killed and thousands arrested. After a year-long pause in anti-government demonstrations, the opposition again took to the streets in February, partly inspired by protests in Egypt.

The arrests of Mousavi and Karroubi had been long postponed out of fear that they could lead to new protests.

On Monday evening, people in several neighborhoods were reported to have shouted slogans in support of the opposition from their balconies and rooftops.

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