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Iran protests turn violent as demonstrators confront police

The months-long confrontation between Iran’s budding opposition movement and a hard-line government determined to stamp it out escalated sharply over the weekend, as parts of the capital became engulfed in fiery political protest and demonstrations broke out across the country on the occasion of an important Shiite religious holiday.

Opposition websites reported as many as nine people killed in Tehran and the western city of Tabriz on Sunday during Ashura, a commemoration of the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Officials put the death toll at five.

Among those allegedly shot dead by government security forces or allied militias was Ali Habibi-Mousavi, described by websites as the nephew of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Despite a heavy crackdown, the protest movement that emerged from Iran’s disputed June 12 presidential election has grown increasingly daring, with members who seek an abolition of Iran’s theocratic system becoming more vocal as more religious and traditional social groups identify with the opposition.

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More demonstrations are expected with burial of Habibi-Mousavi, 38, today and on the religiously significant third, seventh and 40th-day grieving ceremonies for him. Such cycles of protests linked to mourning ceremonies for slain protesters helped dislodge Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi three decades ago.

Police denied opening fire on demonstrators, blaming the violence on “mysterious” forces. Iranian officials confirmed 300 arrests and five deaths in the clashes, but several appeared to have died in accidents.

“According to reports, one person was killed with a bullet,” said Brig. Gen. Ahmad-Reza Radan, deputy commander of the police force, according to state media. “In light of the fact that the police did not use guns, this incident is very suspicious and is being investigated.”

He said “tens” of police officers were wounded in the unrest.

On state television, a news announcer condemned the “riot staged by counterrevolutionary groups” and reported that the protests were “suppressed thanks to the presence of the public.” The report maintained the official line that the ongoing wave of anti-government protests is a conspiracy hatched by Iranian exiles and foreign governments.

Reformist websites and witnesses also reported clashes and protests in the holy city of Qom, in the central cities of Esfahan, Shiraz, Arak, Najafabad and Kashan, in Babol in the north and in Mashhad in the east.

In Washington, the White House “strongly condemned” what it described as an official attempt to suppress the rights of Iranian civilians.

“Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States,” White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.

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The harrowing weekend of rolling clashes between police and protesters coincided with both Ashura and the seventh day of mourning after the Dec. 19 death of a leading dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

The weekend’s slogans were more radical, with protesters not only questioning the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who faced the senior Mousavi and other challengers, but also shouting slogans against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

And tactics became bolder, with demonstrators targeting police vehicles, setting vans and motorcycles on fire, and burning down an office of the pro-government Basiji militia.

One video shows protesters pulling a policeman out of a van in an apparent attempt to free demonstrators locked inside. Another taken from the back seat of a car shows a swarm of demonstrators confronting armed police, overpowering and pushing the officers aside.

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“Young boys, even younger than me, braved all the tear gas, and motorcycles of the anti-riot police storming them,” said Ehsan, a 22-year-old student at Tehran’s Science and Technology University who has attended all the protests. He asked that his full name not be used.

“Some of the young people, only holding sticks . . . counterattacked the anti-riot police and Basijis,” he said. “As soon as they were beaten up or dispersed by tear gas they appeared on some other corners. I have never remembered such a day with so many brave people.”

Across the capital, witnesses described scenes of pandemonium, which were confirmed by video posted online. They were the most violent protests since June 20 clashes after the election.

One person described Tehran as a war zone, and another likened the situation to open “civil war” as increasingly bold protester took on security forces. In one case, protesters stripped a member of the security forces of his clothes before letting him go, a witness said.

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Black plumes of smoke could be seen rising from downtown Tehran. Video posted online showed protesters beating pro-government militiamen as their motorcycles burned in the background. Helicopters hovered in the skies.

Protesters built fires in trash cans to ward off the effects of tear gas. Witnesses described street battles between plainclothes and uniformed security officers and demonstrators, some throwing stones, in more than a dozen places in Tehran.

The wail of ambulance sirens could be heard all over the city. Car horns honked on expressways as motorists created traffic jams in an effort to prevent security forces from moving freely. On nearby streets drivers leaned on their horns and flashed V-for-victory hand signs despite the heavy presence of police around main squares. Bus passengers could be heard chanting slogans.

“Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein!” they chanted in support of the senior Mousavi.

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Around the Vali Asr intersection, police fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse thousands of protesters shouting “Death to the dictator” and “Today is a day of mourning.”

Demonstrators continued their protests into the night, gathering in key Tehran squares and clashing with security forces armed with tear gas and batons.

“There is no let-up,” said Farzad, a 30-year-old who joined the protests with his girlfriend. He said he now wears heavy leather boots so he can kick police and militiamen. “We will go ahead until we topple the government.”

Iran’s security forces have not used lethal force on demonstrators, apparently afraid that such a move would only further galvanize a protest movement that has attempted to co-opt deep-seated Iranian historical and cultural themes of martyrdom. If such orders were disobeyed, it could open a potentially dangerous rift within the security forces.

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A woman in front of City Theater in downtown Tehran said she saw a bloodied man who apparently had been stabbed in the back, and spotted another man falling to the ground after shots were fired near Enghelab Street, which emerged as the epicenter of the clashes. Video posted to the Internet showed at least two men who appeared dead.

Reformist websites said Habibi-Mousavi was shot near Enghelab Street and taken to a Tehran hospital, where his family, including his well-known uncle, soon gathered.

Protesters had vowed for weeks to turn Sunday’s annual Ashura into an anti-government demonstration.

The green-themed protest movement sought to meld its cry of injustice with the emotionally powerful narrative of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. Shiites believe he was unjustly robbed of his throne as the leader of the faithful when he was cut down in battle by the Caliph Yazid on the fields outside the Iraqi city of Karbala.

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“This is a month of blood,” they chanted. “Yazid will be defeated!”

“We will fight, we will die, we will get our country back!” the protesters yelled out, holding ribbons of green.

daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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