Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards, airlifted into the dissident regional capital of Tabriz, fought pitched street battles today with militant Azerbaijani militiamen loyal to Khomeini's most prominent political rival.
Tonight, the state radio reported that Army troops also had been ordered in to help restore order.
The violence had left eight persons dead and more than 100 wounded by nightfall, according to hospitals in Tabriz. It was the dealiest confrontation vet between the Azerbaijani followers of Ayatollah Kazem Shariatnardari and representatives of the central Iranian government directed by Khomeini.
The clashes were part of a continuing struggle by Shariatmadari's followers against the absolute powers assumed by Khomeini under the new Islamic republic. The resistance marks a major challenge to Khomeini's rule because the 10 millions Turkish-speaking Azerbaijanis make up the country's largest minority. While centered in Tabriz, they are spread around the country.
Azerbiajanis have demanded increased local rule for the region west of the Caspian Sea and just south of the Soviet Union. Their chief grievance, however, has been Khomeini's eclipse of Shariatmadari, their revered religious leader who is Iran's second-ranking ayatollah after Khomeini.
Shariatmadari, despite little apparent enthusiasm for political battles, has become the symbol of Azerbaijani ethmic pride posed against the Persian-speaking plurality that runs the country.
Azerbaijani dissidents have become a major preoccupation for Khomeini, distracting him from consideration of the state of the U.S. hostages held by Islamic militants in Khomeini's name.
Fighting today was with automatic rifiles and hand grenades along with clubs and slings. It followed a largescale uprising in Tabriz last month in which the local radio station was seized. The latest explosion culminated a series of smaller disturbances over the weekend in which half a dozen person were killed.
Reacting to the violence, Khomeini issued an appeal for calm from his headquarters in the holy city of Qom. Addressed to the Azerbaijani people, it was read on the state-run television.
"Give your service to Islam," he said. "Maintain the same responsibility you showed during the revolution. We are very close to elections for the presidency and parliament. This is a delicate time."
Iranians are scheduled to elect a president Jan. 25, and a parliament shortly afterwards. Under the new constitution, however, Khomeini will retain overall authority as supreme religious leader of the Islam-based republic.
There was no immediate reaction from Shariatmadari, who lives in Qom under Khomeini's shadow. Youthful followers of Khomeini paraded through Qom today, shouting support for the ayatollah, but there was no sign of the Azerbaijani militants who have vowed to descend on Qom to demonstrate in favor of Shariatmadari.
Shariatmadari broadcast an appeal on the state radio last night urging them to call off their plan. Revolutionary Guards mounted a strict security watch throughout Qom and at entrances to the city. Motorists on the two-hour drive from Tehran were stopped and searched at four separate roadblocks manned by armed Revolutionary Guards or Army troops.
The revolutionary Guards Barred access to Shariatmadari's house despite an influx of Iranians in Qom to mark the Shiite Moslem observance of Arbacen. The national hoilday is a time of mounting 40 days after Ashura, the remembrance of the slain Imam Hussein, grandson of the phophet Mohammad.
An aide to Shariatmadari, reached by telephone inside the house, said the Azerbaijani leader has not been allowed to receive visitors despite his wishes to the contrary. He told an inquiring correspondent to call Ayatollah Kokaram Shirazi, a locally influential religious figure to whom Shariatmadari has complained.
Shirazi said, however, that the closing off of Shariatmadari's house was imposed only for today because of the announced intention of Azerbaijanis to mass in Qom.
There have been reports that Shariatmadari has been restricted in his movements and ability to receive visitors on orders from Khomeini following a particularly bitter sermon Friday, complaining that conditions now are no better than those under the deposed shah.
His own declarations have been unclear, however, on how strongly he supports the agitation in his name in Tabriz. His appeal for cancellation of the Qom demonstration also included a recommendation for restraint in the Azerbaijani capital.
It was clear from the clashes there, however, that his advice was disregarded. His followers in Tabriz have either pulled ahead of their leader in opposition to Khomeini, observers said, or regarded his appeal for holding back as the result of pressure from Khomeini.
The central government, realizing the potential for violence on this holy day airlifted large numbers of Revolutionary Guardsmen to Tabriz yesterday to augment the relatively small paramilitary force permanently stationed outside the city.
Today's fighting began about noon when large groups loyal to Khomeini or Shariatmadari, starting from different points of the city, converged at Tabriz University and battled with wooden staves, bricks and butcher knives, according to local sources.
Shooting broke out and the crowd dispersed throughout the city, setting fire to several parked cars, banks and shops, they said.
A television crew reported seeing a dozen Revolutionary Guardsmen lob tear-gas cannisters and fire automatic weapons toward about 5,000 Sharitmadari followers assembling about 300 yards away.
Once the groups separated for other parts of the city, Khomeini supporters marched toward the headquarters of the Moslem People's Republican Party, the heavily fortified center of Shariatmadari followers. Intense fighting continued in front of the party headquarters.
Reports from both sides of the battle said the Shariatmadari forces fought back with automatic rifles.
Animosity dividing followers of the two religious leaders dates back to early December, when Khomeini supporters in Qom marched on Shariatmadari's house and killed one of his guards to protest Shariatmadari's opposition to provisions of the new constitution giving absolute power to Khomeini.
Retaliation in Tabriz by Shariatmadari's followers, who seized the Television and radio station and occupied the governor's office, ended two days later after Khomeini pledged to remove three of his representatives accused of trampling on local customs and discriminating against supporters of Shariatmadari.
Several weeks after the pledge, the three officials remained in their positions. Shariatmadari's followers, feeling betrayed, have reacted.
The Associated Press added from Tehran:
Ayatollah Mohammed Behesti, first secretary of the ruling Revolutionary Council, told a press conference, "There is some movement" toward freeing of the U.S. hostages.
"I am not sure if this movement will be seen in a few days, maybe a few weeks," said the influential clergyman. His only elaboration was to say, "A solution includes the possibility of a spy trial."
[White House press secretary Jody Powell said there was no evidence to substantiate Bcheshti's claim.]
In another development, Iran's Foreign Ministry said news agency and TV reports that U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim met secretly with U.S. Charge d'Affaires L. Bruce Laingen during Waldheim's visit here last week were "utterly baseless," the official Pars news agency said today.