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Pro- and anti-government marchers face off in Tehran

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Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the streets of Tehran and at least two other Iranian cities Friday, audaciously turning an annual rally in support of the Palestinian cause into the first major demonstration against the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in six weeks.

“Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I’ll sacrifice my life for Iran,” chanted the protesters as they stretched out along the capital’s wide boulevards.

Witnesses in Tehran reported that by late morning the demonstrators had taken full control of the expansive Seventh of Tir Square. Amateur video also showed thousands holding up green ribbons and shawls in peaceful rallies in Shiraz and Esfahan.

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Ahmadinejad, whose disputed reelection three months ago has triggered Iran’s worst political crisis in decades, ignored the protesters, who confronted him with chants of “Liar! Liar!” minutes before he delivered a blistering condemnation of Israel at Tehran University in the capital’s downtown.

Ahmadinejad repeated well-known controversial statements, questioning the Holocaust, saying Israel was founded on “lies” and blaming “Zionists” for various wars.

“If the Holocaust you claim is correct, why do you reject any research about it?” he said in his remarks before Friday prayers. “The Zionists are behind the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan.”

Ahmadinejad’s stepped-up anti-Israel rhetoric comes as he heads to the United Nations next week to address world leaders and as Iran’s nuclear program is under intense scrutiny. During an interview Thursday with NBC TV News, Ahmadinejad declined to categorically say that Iran would never pursue a nuclear weapons program, saying only, “We do not see any need for such weapons.”

The president’s repeated anti-Israel statements and questioning of the Holocaust have triggered a fierce backlash overseas that has helped him rally domestic support. But with anger still seething over the controversial election, it is not clear that Iranians will come together behind him.

State-controlled Iranian television showed thousands of Quds Day attendees wearing traditional Arab scarves and holding posters of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization. The crowds chanted “Death to Israel,” a traditional rallying cry on this holiday, which has been held on the last Friday of the Islamic month of Ramadan since the first years after Iran’s 1979 revolution.

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But the opposition stole the day. The huge crowds illustrated the anti-government movement’s continued vitality despite a violent three-month crackdown that has included beatings, imprisonments, detainee abuse allegations and awkward televised confessions of dissident activists held for months in solitary confinement without access to lawyers.

The protesters’ daring stunned some observers. At one point Friday, a tall woman holding a green balloon flashed the opposition’s signature “V” sign with her fingers as she walked nonchalantly past a sidewalk packed with pro-government rally attendees.

Opposition leader and presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, along with reformist leader Mehdi Karroubi and former President Mohammad Khatami, joined in the demonstration amid reports that their arrests were imminent. A young government supporter allegedly tried to attack Khatami with a knife but was thwarted by his guards.

A spokesman for Karroubi said he did not think the authorities would dare to provoke the opposition in the coming days after witnessing the movement’s strength Friday.

“Based on what I have heard about the extent of the marches . . . it was much more than I expected and predicted,” said Esmail Gerami-Moqaddam, a spokesman for Karroubi’s political party. “I do not think they will dare to arrest Karroubi now. I think all the pressures and arrests have proved to be counterproductive.”

Calls to join in and undermine the government rally had been distributed by an informal network of organizers via the Internet and leaflets pasted on city walls, bus stations and telephone booths.

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The government’s Revolutionary Guard had ominously warned a day earlier that anyone wearing the green associated with Mousavi or chanting anything other than slogans against Israel would be attacked harshly.

Some opposition protesters came by subway, nervously moving out into the streets and hiding green ribbons in their pockets as they walked past phalanxes of helmeted riot police and hard-line pro-government Basiji militiamen.

They chanted quietly at first, nervous among the many government supporters headed toward Friday prayers, where the sermon was delivered by an acolyte of Ahmadinejad after the relatively moderate Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was barred from speaking.

Eventually, their murmurs gave way to boisterous choruses, as they realized that they were among thousands of protesters.

Soon they were shouting down government supporters, drowning out the loudspeakers broadcasting calls for the death of Israel and America. The protesters responded with, “Death to Russia,” a strategic ally of the government.

“I did not expect such a huge number of young people,” said 27-year-old graduate student Reza, who declined to give his last name. “We asserted ourselves and changed the agenda of the day.”

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Some protesters threw rocks and bottles at security forces and Basiji militiamen who were firing tear gas. Some arrests were reported. Charred motorcycles lay on a street, possibly burned in clashes between demonstrators and militiamen.

Protesters told The Times that the crowd rivaled the numbers that flooded Tehran’s streets in the week after Iran’s June 12 election, a claim backed by video showing huge crowds flooding major downtown thoroughfares.

“We want to have freedom of expression,” said Hoda, a university student wearing a traditional all-covering black chador. “We want to have a country that every Iranian will be proud of their country and we fight for that until the end.”

There were reports of some violent confrontations between security forces and protesters. But uniformed police mostly stood on the sidelines.

“Come on, don’t be afraid,” one police officer told an opposition demonstrator, in apparent support. “Be brave. We die once, and this is worth it.”

Another nearby police officer chimed in, “Today there will be no beating up going on,” he said.

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With both sides taking to the streets, boisterous political debates erupted, similar to those before the elections.

On the west side of Enghelab Square, hundreds of government supporters chanted, “The blood in our veins is a gift to our leader,” as they marched toward Azadi Square to force the opposition to leave.

The opposition protesters countered: “The blood in our veins is a gift to our nation.”

“Listen, today is the day of unity,” one elderly man said. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “said we should shout against Israel, why do you talk about Mousavi?”

Another elderly man responded, “We are unable to make ends meet as the prices go up and up. Who cares about Israel? ‘Down with Israel’ does not make jobs for our youths or grow our money.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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