BY ROBERT F. WORTH
TEHRAN — Police officers used tear gas and water cannons to beat back thousands of demonstrators gathering in the capital on Saturday, a day after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said there would be “bloodshed” if street protests continued over the disputed presidential election.
Supporters of defeated election candidate Mirhossein Mousavi have reportedly lit a fire at the headquarters of the Iranian president’s backers in Tehran.
Police have fired shots in the air to prevent clashes between those who favour pro-reformer Mr Mousavi and those who support hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, witnesses say.
At least two persons are thought to have been hurt in the gunfire.
The violence unfolded on a day of extraordinary tension across Iran, as opposition protesters swore to continue pressing their claims of a stolen election against Iran’s embattled and increasingly impatient clerical leadership. Iran’s divisions played out on the streets. Regular security forces stood back and calmly urged protesters to go home and avoid bloodshed, while the feared pro-government militia, the Basij, beat protesters with clubs and electric prods.
In some places, the protesters pushed back, rushing the militia in teams of hundreds, pitching at least three basijis from their motorcycles and setting the vehicles on fire. The protesters included many women, who even berated as “cowards” men who fled the basijis.
In all, there seemed some restraint on both sides. The protesters did not appear in the same huge numbers as earlier last week, and while the police fired shots, they appeared — so far — to be in the air.
“If they open fire on people and if there is bloodshed, people will get angrier,” said one protester, Ali, 40. “They are out of their minds if they think with bloodshed they can crush the movement.”
There had been varying reports in the hours leading up to the rally about whether it would be called off in the face of the state’s threatened crackdown. In the morning, black-clad security forces lined the streets of two squares in central Tehran as the city braced itself for a violent crackdown, witnesses said. State television reported that the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, had called off the protest, but some of his supporters, posting on social networking sites, urged demonstrators to gather.
But Web sites of two opposition figures declared the rally would be held. The Web site of Mehdi Karroubi, another presidential candidate who accused the government of fraud, said that contrary to reports on state media, the protests would go on and added that Mr. Karroubi, “the brave cleric, will join the rally” along with Mr. Moussavi and the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. On Mr. Moussavi’s Web site, a letter was posted from the Islamic Human Rights Group complaining of abuses by pro-government militia, which it said had attacked crowds and beat people with long sticks.
Journalists were banned from leaving their offices to report on the protests. A reporter from an American news organization said she had been called by a member of the Basij militia warning her not to go to the venue for the Saturday rally because the situation would be dangerous and there could be fatalities.
The authorities were also reported to have renewed an offer of a partial recount of the ballots in the disputed election — an offer that the opposition has previously rejected.
In a long and hard-line sermon on Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei declared the June 12 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad valid and warned that demonstration leaders “would be responsible for bloodshed and chaos” if protesters continue, as they have pledged, to flood the streets in defiance of the government.
The tough words seemed to dash hopes for a peaceful solution to what defeated candidates and protesters called a fraudulent election last week, plunging Iran into its gravest crisis since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Official results gave Mr. Ahmadinejad 63 percent of the vote to Mr. Moussavi’s 34 percent.
Regional analysts said that, by calling for an end to the demonstrations, Ayatollah Khamenei had inserted himself directly into the confrontation, invoking his own prestige and that of Iran’s clerical regime. But his speech also laid the groundwork to suppress the opposition movement with a harder hand, characterizing further protests as against the Islamic Republic itself.
Although Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech also included some conciliatory language about the opposition candidates, it remained unclear how the ongoing confrontation would affect Iran’s complex internal dynamics. One central figure was notably absent from Ayatollah Khamenei’s Friday sermon: the influential former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has strongly backed Mr. Moussavi.
Iran’s National Security Council reinforced Ayatollah Khamenei’s warning on Saturday, state media reported, telling Mr. Moussavi to “refrain from provoking illegal rallies.”
The demand came in a letter from the head of the council, Abbas Mohtaj, after a formal complaint by Mr. Moussavi that law enforcement agencies had failed to protect protesters.
“It is your duty not to incite and invite the public to illegal gatherings; otherwise, you will be responsible for its consequences,” the letter said, according to state media.
Ahmad Reza Radan, a senior police officer, warned on state television that the police “will act with determination against all illegal demonstrations and protests.”
In a measure of the scale of the opposition’s complaints, one losing candidate in the June 12 election, Mohsen Rezai, a conservative former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, claimed to have won between 3.5 and 7 million votes compared to the 250,000 accorded to him in the first announcement of results a week ago, state-run Press TVreported Saturday.
And, in a sign of mixed signals emerging from the authorities, the English-language network also reported Saturday that Ibrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister who leads an organization called Freedom Movement, had been released after being detained in a hospital earlier in the week. Several opposition figures, journalists and analysts were detained during a week of defiance that brought forth an array of official measures — part conciliatory, part repressive — to try to stem the protests.
Witnesses said that Mohammad Ghoochani, a prominent journalist and editor-in-chief of several reformist publications that had been shut down, was arrested Saturday by the authorities. There were no further details of his condition or location. On Saturday, the authorities also invited the three opposition candidates to attend a meeting with the 12-member Guardian Council, an authoritative panel of clerics which oversees and certifies election results. But only one candidate — Mr. Rezai — attended, Press TV said.
The panel has been presented with 646 complaints of electoral irregularities, the authorities have said.
Mr. Moussavi has expressed mistrust of the panel, accusing some of its members of campaigning before the election for Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Press TV quoted Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the council’s spokesman, as saying the body was investigating complaints including shortages and delays in the supply of ballot papers, the denial of access to polling stations by candidates’ representatives and intimidation and bribery of voters.
“Although the Guardian Council is not legally obliged,” Mr. Kadkhodaei was quoted as saying, “we are ready to recount 10 percent of the ballot boxes randomly in the presence of representatives of the candidates.”
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