Parisa Hafezi and Reza Derakhshi – Reuters December 29, 2009
Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Tuesday to call for the punishment of opposition leaders for fomenting unrest after June's disputed presidential poll, state media reported.
Hardline rulers intensified a crackdown on the reform movement on Sunday by rounding up leading moderates to try to end street protests after deadly weekend clashes erupted during the Shi'ite Muslim religious ritual of Ashura.
At least 18 opposition figures have been arrested since Sunday, including three senior advisers to opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, his brother-in-law and a sister of Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, opposition websites reported. Ebadi confirmed her sister's arrest.
Political turmoil has entered a new phase in Iran with bloody face-offs and arrests over the vote won by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with security forces calling on the authorities to deal "firmly" with opposition leaders.
The powerful Revolutionary Guards on Tuesday issued a statement accusing the foreign media and enemies of the revolution of joining hands to harm Iran's establishment.
Tens of thousands of people chanted "We are ready to sacrifice our lives for our Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei)," state television reported, saying the nationwide demonstrations had taken place spontaneously.
"Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind Sunday's protests which insulted religion," state television reported, referring to the protests taking place during the holy ritual of Ashura.
The scale of the pro-government demonstrations could not be independently verified because of restrictions on the foreign media's movements, imposed as the rallies by supporters of the reformist movement gathered momentum.
Iranian authorities say eight people were killed in clashes on Sunday when supporters of Mousavi used the religious festival of Ashura to stage fresh anti-government rallies.
Police said the "suspicious deaths" were being investigated, adding dozens of security men were injured in the clashes.
Authorities blame what they call foreign-backed "terrorist groups" for the killings, including the death of Mousavi's nephew Ali Habibi Mousavi Khamene. The Iranian government has repeatedly accused foreign powers of fanning the unrest.
"What happened on Ashura day was an unsuccessful pre-planned scenario to harm the Islamic state's image and weaken the system," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted the head of the volunteer Basij militia, Mohammadreza Naqdi, as saying.
CALL FOR FIRM PUNISHMENT
Parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani urged the judiciary to arrest those behind the anti-government rally on Sunday. "Identify them, arrest them and firmly punish those who insulted religion," Larijani said, according to state television.
Larijani also called on opposition leaders to refrain from calling any more protests against the clerical establishment. "Separate your path from rioters. Avoid actions that ignite tension in Iran," the speaker was reported as saying.
When the June 12 presidential election returned hardliner Ahmadinejad to power by a wide margin, thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic.
Street protests have shown no sign of abating since the vote, which authorities say was the healthiest since the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the shah. They strongly reject the opposition leaders' accusations of widespread vote fraud.
Opposition website Jaras said more than 900 protesters were arrested on Sunday in Tehran and the central city of Isfahan. Police said 300 people had been arrested in Tehran.
The Intelligence Ministry said members of an exiled opposition group, the Mujahideen Khalq Organisation, were among those arrested. The group, which has had bases in Iraq since the 1980s, began as a group of Islamist leftists opposed to the shah but fell out with the Shi'ite clerics who took power.
The web reports could not be independently verified because foreign media have been banned from directly covering protests.
A journalist for Dubai TV was arrested on Sunday for covering the protests, a Culture Ministry official told Reuters.
"Journalists have been banned from covering street protests ... and he should not have attended the protests on Sunday," said the official, who asked not to be named. "We are trying to get him out of jail as he had a valid press accreditation."
U.S. President Barack Obama strongly condemned on Monday what he said was the "iron fist of brutality" used to quell the protests and demanded the immediate release of detainees.
Washington's European allies also condemned the violence against the protesters.
Larijani said the Western leaders' comments were "disgusting." "Such praise disgraces you (the opposition leaders) and causes the system to act firmly," Larijani said.
(Editing by Peter Millership)
Last updated 31/12/2009