Tehran – Police officers used sticks and tear gas to force back thousands of demonstrators under plumes of black smoke in the capital on Saturday, a day after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said there would be “bloodshed” if street protests continued over the disputed presidential election.
Separately, state-run media reported that three people were wounded when a suicide bomber attacked at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the southern part of the city, several miles from the scheduled protests. The report of the blast could not be independently confirmed.
Below is video of a victim of todays protest in tehran **WARNING Graphic content**
The violence unfolded on a day of extraordinary tension across Iran. The opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, appeared at a demonstration in southern Tehran and called for a general strike if he were to be arrested. “I am ready for martyrdom,” he told supporters.
Mr. Moussavi again called for nullifying the election’s results, and opposition protesters swore to continue pressing their claims of a stolen election against Iran’s embattled and increasingly impatient clerical leadership in Iran’s worst crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In Washington, President Obama called the government’s reaction “violent and unjust,” and, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., warned again that the world was watching what happened in Tehran.
Iran’s divisions played out on the streets. Regular security forces stood back and urged protesters to go home to avoid bloodshed, while the feared pro-government militia, the Basij, beat protesters with clubs and, witnesses said, electric prods.
In some places, the protesters pushed back, rushing the militia in teams of hundreds: At least three Basijis were pitched from their motorcycles, which were then set on fire. The protesters included many women, some of whom berated as “cowards” men who fled the Basijis. There appeared to be tens of thousands of protesters in Tehran, far fewer than the mass demonstrations early last week, most likely because of intimidation.
The street violence appeared to grow more intense as night fell, and there were unconfirmed reports of multiple deaths. A BBC journalist at Enghelab (Revolution) Square reported seeing one person shot by the security forces. An amateur video posted on YouTube showed a woman bleeding to death after being shot by a Basiji, the text posted with the video said.
“If they open fire on people and if there is bloodshed, people will get angrier,” said a protester, Ali, 40. “They are out of their minds if they think with bloodshed they can crush the movement.”
Video below of crowds that protest
Mr. Obama’s statement was his strongest to date on the post-election turmoil in Iran. Saying that “each and every innocent life” lost would be mourned, he added: “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.
“Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people’s belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”
There had been varying reports in the hours leading up to the opposition rally about whether it would be called off in the face of the government’s threatened crackdown. State television reported that Mr. Moussavi had called it off, but some of his supporters, posting on social networking sites, urged demonstrators to gather.
Journalists were banned from leaving their offices to report on the protests. A reporter from an American news organization said she had been called by a member of the Basij militia warning her not to go to the venue for the Saturday rally because the situation would be dangerous and there could be fatalities.
The authorities were also reported on Saturday to have renewed an offer of a partial recount of the ballots in the disputed election — an offer that the opposition has previously rejected. A letter from Mr. Moussavi published on one of his Web sites late Saturday repeated his demand for the election to be annulled.
Video below Freeway overtaken by battle
“The Iranian nation will not believe this unjust and illegal” act, he said in the letter, which was addressed to the powerful Guardian Council, a panel of clerics which oversees and certifies election results. Making his case for electoral fraud, he charged that thousands of his representatives had been expelled from polling stations and some mobile polling stations had ballot boxes filled with fake ballots.
In a long and hard-line sermon on Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei declared the June 12 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad valid and warned that demonstration leaders “would be responsible for bloodshed and chaos” if demonstrations continued.
Video below police attack completely defenseless bystanders at university
Regional analysts said that, by calling for an end to the rallies, Ayatollah Khamenei had inserted himself directly into the confrontation, invoking his own prestige and that of Iran’s clerical leaders. But his speech also laid the groundwork to suppress the opposition movement with a harder hand, characterizing any further protests as being against the Islamic republic itself.
Iran’s National Security Council reinforced Ayatollah Khamenei’s warning on Saturday, state media reported, telling Mr. Moussavi to “refrain from provoking illegal rallies.”
The demand came in a letter from the head of the council after a formal complaint by Mr. Moussavi that law enforcement agencies had failed to protect protesters.
“It is your duty not to incite and invite the public to illegal gatherings; otherwise, you will be responsible for its consequences,” the letter said, according to state media.
On Saturday morning, security forces — regular and riot police officers, and the Basij — were deployed in huge numbers around Tehran and, unconfirmed reports said, other major Iranian cities. The reports of confrontations came not only from northern Iran, a hotbed for the opposition, but in the south, generally considered more supportive of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Amateur video posted to the Web showed scenes of chaos and gunfire, some of it as vividly violent as in the clashes on Monday that left at least seven people dead. One video posted on the BBC Farsi service showed streets on fire and a large crowd fleeing amid several rounds of semiautomatic gunfire. A photo showed the riot police repelling demonstrators with a hand-held water cannon.
The Basij militia completely blocked off Enghelab Square, one major gathering ground for the protesters. They are less accountable than regular security forces and, many witnesses said, were far more violent on Saturday.
“Please go home,” one regular officer told protesters. “We are scared of the Basijis, too.”
One woman who lives off Vali Asr Square, near where the protests took place, said Basijis beat and kicked anyone outside, shouting at them to return to their houses.
“The streets near our house were full of Basijis wearing helmets and holding batons,” she said.
The government warned that it would step up the pressure on the opposition from its regular security forces if it continued to stage demonstrations.
“We acted with leniency, but I think from today on, we should resume law and confront more seriously,” Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam said on state television. “The events have become exhausting, bothersome and intolerable. I want them to take the police cautions seriously because we will definitely show a serious confrontation against those who violate rules.”
In a measure of the scale of the opposition’s complaints, one losing candidate in the June 12 election, Mohsen Rezai, a conservative former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, claimed to have won between 3.5 million and 7 million votes compared with the 680,000 accorded to him in the first announcement of results a week ago, state-run Press TV reported Saturday.
Witnesses said that Mohammad Ghoochani, a prominent journalist and editor in chief of several reformist publications that had been shut down, was arrested Saturday by the authorities. There were no further details of his condition or location.
The authorities had also invited the three opposition candidates to attend a meeting on Saturday with the 12-member Guardian Council, the panel of clerics which oversees and certifies election results. But only one candidate — Mr. Rezai — attended, Press TV said.
The panel has been presented with 646 complaints of electoral irregularities, the authorities have said.
Mr. Moussavi has expressed mistrust of the panel, accusing some of its members of campaigning before the election for Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Press TV quoted Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the council’s spokesman, as saying the body was investigating complaints including shortages and delays in the supply of ballot papers, the denial of access to polling stations by candidates’ representatives and intimidation and bribery of voters.
“Although the Guardian Council is not legally obliged,” Mr. Kadkhodaei was quoted as saying, “we are ready to recount 10 percent of the ballot boxes randomly in the presence of representatives of the candidates.”