Reporting from Beirut and Tehran — The Iranian capital erupted in massive and fiery protests today as thousands of protesters clashed with security forces on the occasion of an important Shiite Muslim holiday.
A witness told The Times that Iranian security forces have opened fire with live ammunition against unarmed protesters in a central square in the capital.
And an opposition news website reported that at least three protesters have been killed and two injured. The report could not be independently confirmed and a police source denied the reports of deaths in a comment to the pro-government Fars News Agency.
The report of deaths came amid multiple clashes breaking out between police and Iranian protesters this morning on the day of an important religious commemoration that coincides with the significant seventh day of mourning following the death of the country's leading dissident cleric.
Across the capital, witnesses described scenes of pandemonium. One described Tehran as a war zone.
Black plumes of smoke could be seen rising from downtown Tehran. Video posted online showed protesters beating up pro-government militiamen as their motorcycles burned in the background.
Protesters set off trash can fires to ward off the effects of tear gas. Witnesses described running street battles between plainclothes and uniformed security officers and demonstrators, some throwing stones, in more than a dozen Tehran localities.
At Enghelab Square a police car was set ablaze. The protesters set fire to motorcycles belonging to riot police.
The wail of ambulance sirens could be heard all over the city. Drivers honked their on expressways as they backed up traffic in an effort to prevent security forces from moving freely. Motorists plying nearby streets were leaning on their horns with drivers and other passengers showing "V" signs with their fingers despite the heavy presence of police deployed around main squares. Passengers on buses could also be heard chanting slogans.
"Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!" they chanted in support of opposition figurehead Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Around Vali Asr intersection, police fired tear gas canisters in an attempt to disperse thousands of protesters shouting "Death to the dictator" and "Today is a day of mourning."
Today is the seventh day of mourning following the death of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's leading dissident cleric.
Demonstrators also descended on Imam Hossein Square, where they were confronted by police and headed back along Enghelab Street. At least one helicopter could be heard above.
Police have blocked all the sidewalks along Enghelab, a witness said, where today's protest was slated. Despite the violence, people are demonstrating in all the streets leading to Enghelab.
Despite a heavy crackdown, the protest movement that emerged from Iran's disputed June 12 presidential election has grown increasingly daring, with those who want an abolition of the Islamic Republic increasingly vocal. Protesters had vowed to turn today's annual Ashura commemoration marking the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hossein into an anti-government demonstration.
They were trying to weld their cry of injustice over the elections onto the emotionally powerful narrative of Imam Hossein, who Shiites believe was unjustly robbed of his throne as the leader of the faithful and cut down in battle on the fields outside Karbala, in what is now southern Iraq.
"We will fight, we will die, we will get our country back!" the protesters chanted, holding ribbons of green, the color of the opposition movement.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.