Protesters clash with police as Iran marks Islamic revolution

Tens of thousands of government supporters streamed into Tehran’s Azadi Square on Thursday to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, state television showed, as plainclothes and uniformed security forces faced off against anti-government protesters.

The opposition news website reported that security forces opened fire on demonstrators north of the square, but there was no independent confirmation.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a defiant keynote speech broadcast live on television, condemning the West for its interference in the Middle East, hailing his nation’s efforts to uplift the poor and oppressed and promoting his country’s headlong drive to master nuclear technology, which has spurred international worries that Iran is pursuing atomic weapons.

“We mustn’t neglect the power of the Iranian people,” he told supporters. “Everybody is aware of the fact that our people are capable of influencing the whole of the region by controlling its own sources of energy. We don’t want others to have control over sources of energy and power. Iran must be free. Iran must be powerful and it must be at the forefront of technology.”

But as Ahmadinejad spoke of Iran’s strength and unity, faint cries of “Death to the dictator” could be heard, showing Iran’s domestic political discord that followed his disputed June reelection.

As the official pro-government rally dispersed, protesters continued to mass in squares around the capital, while groups of Basiji militiamen marched through the streets and chanted slogans in support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Severe restrictions were placed on journalists in Tehran. State-controlled television showed huge crowds in Azadi Square, and government supporters declared the day a grand success.

“The massive turnout of the nation in the rally triggered a shock into the central command of the arrogant front, including the U.S., England and the Zionist regime, and the think-tanks of the seditionists will be destroyed for good,” said Maj. Gen. Gholam-Ali Rashid, armed forces deputy chief of staff.

But videos posted to the internet despite severe restrictions showed large crowds of demonstrators gathering and chanting anti-government slogans. Witnesses confirmed the accounts.

“At Sedighiyeh Square, to the north of Azadi, a large gathering of protesters could be seen defiantly confronting security forces with chants of ‘Death to the dictator’ and ‘Political prisoners must be freed,’ while waving green flags and placards and moving closer toward Azadi Square,” a witness said.

The automobiles of opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi and former President Mohammad Khatami came under attack by Basiji militiamen, opposition websites reported.

Relatives of Karroubi and Khatami, as well as the granddaughter of Iran’s revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were briefly retained and released, according to opposition websites that are ordinarily accurate.

During the afternoon, a witness reported clashes along Enghelab Street east of Azadi Square, where security forces began arresting people.

Security forces on side streets were beating people, the witness said, with a dozen or so Basiji militiamen deployed at each intersection and uniformed security forces trying in vain to disperse the chanting crowds.

Clashes also broke out around Vali Asr Square, where a motorcycle was torched. One of those arrested near the square was a young man who was chanting anti-regime slogans from his car. Security forces attacked the vehicle, dragged him out and took him away as his mother begged for his release, according to a witness.

Military helicopters hovered over the area.

There were also reports of clashes in other Iranian cities, including Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz.

Rahesabz said opposition supporters had “taken control” of the streets west and north of the square, a massive public space with an iconic statue shaped like an upside-down Y at the center. A witness said security forces arrested at least five people.

“The supporters of the opposition are in high numbers,” he said, on condition of anonymity. “They are chanting, ‘Referendum! Referendum!’ That is the slogan of the people.”

In the hours before the rally, Iranian authorities tried to throttle communications from the country. Text-message services were cut, internet speeds slowed to a trickle and e-mail services were cut off, as they had been sporadically in days before the highly anticipated march. On the evening before the march, opposition supporters clambered to their rooftops and chanted “God is great!” in what has become a signature gesture of the opposition movement.

A witness in the Iranian capital said official preparations for today’s 22 Bahman holiday commemorating the anniversary of the Islamic revolution were not for peaceful protests.

“All the side roads leading to Engelab and Azadi streets are cordoned off by anti-riot police, Basiji militiamen and plainclothes security officials, some holding cameras,” the witness said.

Government supporters held up twin portraits of revolutionary founder Khomeini and his successor Khamenei, chanting, “I am ready to sacrifice myself for my beloved leader.”

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.