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Protests, clashes break out in Iran on anniversary of disputed election

Security forces, demonstrators face off in the streets of Tehran as hundreds turn out, rather than the tens of thousands of previous rallies. Opposition leaders had called off demonstrations, fearing the official response.

June 12, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beirut and Tehran — Small clashes erupted Saturday between demonstrators marking the first anniversary of Iran's disputed presidential election and baton-wielding security forces, witnesses and opposition websites reported.

The outbreaks of protest throughout Tehran, the capital, and in other cities drew groups numbering in the hundreds instead of the thousands or tens of thousands that characterized the massive street rallies of summer and fall 2009.

The protests came despite a last-minute decision by opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to call off the anniversary rally, apparently out of concern that the official crackdown would be too harsh. Security forces have been preparing for the anniversary for months.

The scuffles suggested that the movement that sprang from the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained alive, even if it had lost much of its momentum.

"We came to the streets to show we will not cave in and we want real change," said Mohsen, a 27-year-old student who was among the protesters. "We want to prove that pressure on people will be counterproductive, and the huge number of anti-riot police and Basiji [militiamen] today with surgical masks in the streets shows who is afraid of whom. They are scared of us, not vice versa."

Iranian security officials, many of them veterans or acolytes of the hard-line Revolutionary Guard, had warned of dire consequences for those who took to the streets.

"We will not allow any gathering or march to take shape and will deal decisively with those who would violate the ban," Tehran's police commander, Brig. Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, said early Saturday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Later in the day, officials downplayed the protests as insignificant, though they acknowledged a number of arrests.

"Despite extensive propaganda by the enemy, no problems were reported today from across the country due to people's awareness," Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Radan, an ally of Ahmadinejad and an architect of the crackdown against the peaceful protests last year, told the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency. "Just a few people were arrested as suspects in Tehran by the intelligence agents, and they will be referred to the judiciary tonight after completing their files."

In a strongly worded statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused authorities of denying fundamental rights that are guaranteed Iranians under their constitution. She called for the release of imprisoned human rights activists, identifying several by name.

Some activists face death sentences for expressing their opinions, Clinton said. "Other civil society activists in Iran are not in prison, but they face other forms of persecution. Over the past year, many of Iran's most accomplished journalists, academics and activists felt they had no choice but to leave their homeland."

Clinton's statement contrasted with the Obama administration's cautious approach a year ago. Officials then were wary of criticizing Iran too harshly for fear that it would make diplomatic engagement more difficult, or backfire on pro-democracy activists by allowing authorities to portray them as U.S. puppets.

Mousavi and Karroubi, members of a moderate faction of the political establishment, lost to Ahmadinejad a year ago Saturday in a landslide immediately derided as fraudulent by the nation's reformist opposition and as suspect by most independent observers.

The vote sparked a months-long, largely peaceful uprising quashed by Iranian authorities using mostly non-lethal force, mass imprisonments and a relentless media campaign on state-controlled television and radio depicting the opposition as foreign dupes.

Dozens were killed in the crackdown and thousands imprisoned, although many were released on heavy bail.

The crackdown quieted the street protests but failed to calm public ire, which has evolved from the immediate outrage over Ahmadinejad's reelection to anger over the crackdown and discontent over the nation's economic troubles.

But the opposition has failed to articulate a clear-cut vision or strategy for changing Iran, with some in the movement committed to reforming the Islamic Republic and others advocating the dismantling of Iran's unique theocratic system.

In the capital Saturday, security forces and demonstrators faced off along the streets adjacent to Tehran University, the capital's main institution of higher learning, as well as Sharif University of Technology, Azadi Square and other points.

Security forces opened fire with paint guns and rubber bullets, one striking the ear of a young man.

Pro-government militiamen could be seen pummeling young men and women as cries of "Death to the dictator" rang out.

As night fell, residents in various Tehran neighborhoods chanted "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," from their windows, balconies and rooftops in what has become a periodic gesture of protest.

Mostaghim is a special correspondent in Tehran. Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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