- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

ISTANBUL | Iran’s six-month political crisis escalated Sunday as security forces killed at least eight people, including the nephew of an opposition leader, and arrested hundreds, creating new martyrs and momentum for Iran’s opposition on the holiest day for Shi’ite Muslims.

Clashes continued well into the night after a day of renewed violence that some Iranians dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” A reformist Web site said the Islamic republic had declared martial law for the first time since the 1978-79 revolution in Najafabad, the hometown of a dissident cleric who died last week.

The protesters, in turn, broke several taboos, setting fire to a station of the paramilitary Basij and torching police motorcycles and other police vehicles throughout Tehran. Protesters in some cases beat police and pelted others with stones. They also besieged the headquarters of the state broadcasting authority and stripped captured policemen of their weapons, according to witnesses, Web sites and videos displayed widely on the Internet.

The reformist Rahesabz news agency reported that some security officers refused their commanders’ instructions to shoot into crowds, instead firing their weapons into the sky. Videos posted on the Internet showed a policeman changing sides and being carried aloft by demonstrators through the streets of Tehran.

Although the government appeared in no danger of falling imminently, Iran analysts said the regime appeared increasingly incapable of coping with the massive outpouring of unrest.

“I don’t think they have a plan,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The government is making so many mistakes. They should have let all the mourning ceremonies happen. They need to give a forum to people to speak out.”

Witnesses and opposition Web sites said that the clashes, which took place in Tehran and a half-dozen other cities, were the bloodiest in several months. At least eight people were killed, among them Seyed Al Hossein Mousavi, 35, the nephew of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who challenged incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 12 elections tainted by fraud.

An Iranian police statement said five people were killed and that “experts are seeking to identify the suspicious elements.”

State television said more than 300 protesters were arrested in Tehran alone.

“Dozens of police officers have been injured, including Tehran’s police chief,” Iranian deputy police chief Ahmadreza Radan told state TV. “One person fell from a bridge, two died in car accidents and one was shot dead, but not by police.”

Press TV, an English-language channel run by the government, said Mr. Mousavi was killed by “unknown assailants.”

The reformist-aligned kaleme.org news site said Mr. Mousavi was shot in the heart.

Hoda Nasiri, a political activist, told The Washington Times that she was among a crowd that witnessed a sniper shooting Mr. Mousavi from a rooftop. Ms. Nasiri said the body was taken later to Tehran’s Avicenna Hospital.

“I saw with my eyes a middle-aged male protester shot dead by riot police,” added a man who asked to be referred to only by his first name, Massoud. “People carried the corpse over their heads for about a kilometer until riot police rushed the crowd, grabbed the body and left it on the street for over an hour before it was transferred.”

In Najafabad, the hometown of the recently deceased Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, locals and police turned the town’s central garden into a battlefield, fighting each other with stones and knives, according to the Agence Iran Web site. As dusk fell, authorities circulated in the streets using loudspeakers to announce martial law. Rahesabz, the reformist news site, said the declaration was the first since the 1978-79 revolution overturned the pro-Western shah.

The protests, which also were reported in Tabriz, Qom, Shiraz, Isfahan, Mashhad and Babol, took place during Ashura, the high point of religious observances for devout Shi’ites. On that day, the 10th day of the month of Moharram, in the year 680, Hossein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, died in battle with the forces of the caliph Yazid in Karbala, now part of Iraq.

Hossein’s martyrdom symbolizes the fight against oppression, and the Iranian regime typically encourages its citizens to mark the day with solemn processions.

On Sunday, however, the religious trappings of the regime backfired.

“It’s pure political suicide to kill people on Ashura of all days,” said Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, an analyst and doctoral candidate in contemporary Iranian history at London University. “They become instant martyrs.”

Opposition supporters said the killings, seven days after the death by natural causes of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the most prominent dissident cleric, would give new momentum to a movement that began as a protest against a fraud-tainted election but has grown to encompass mass frustration with three decades of authoritarian rule.

“It’s beginning to look like something with self-sustaining momentum that the regime cannot decisively suppress,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. At the same time, she cautioned that “I don’t think we know how this will play out” and that the government “has used force and can use a lot more.”

“What’s significant is the fact that hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets despite being explicitly threatened by the regime not to,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “One of the interesting chants I heard was ‘toop, tank, basiji, dige asar nadari’ [cannons, tanks and basij are no longer effective],” he said. “The regime’s already low morale is rapidly deteriorating. You can really see it in the eyes of the police force; they know they’re on the wrong side.”

The Obama administration, which has been criticized by some for continuing to seek a nuclear deal with Iran while domestic unrest grows, issued a strong statement Sunday condemning the crackdown.

“We strongly condemn the violent and unjust suppression of civilians in Iran seeking to exercise their universal rights,” said the statement, issued by Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States. Governing through fear and violence is never just, and as President Obama said in Oslo, it is telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation.”

As has become common since June, as night fell, thousands of people took to the rooftops to chant religious and anti-regime slogans.

” ‘Death to Khamenei’ is being heard for the first time on a large scale,” said Mohsen, an Iranian blogger, who asked to be identified only by his first name. He was referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

“Taboos are being broken and people are loudly praying on their rooftops that God may help them be rid of Khamenei,” Mohsen said.

Mr. Randjbar-Daemi said Iran, which witnessed a revolution in the early part of the last century as well as in 1978-79, is “getting into the final stage of the confrontation and the ruling clique is waving all pretenses of respect to faith, tradition and memory goodbye.

“Moharram is a month of truce, so the authorities in Iran are violating everything. It’s a regime that is feeling and smelling its own demise, ready to embark onto everything in order to avoid the sinking ship from capsizing.”

Iran insists that Mr. Ahmadinejad won the June election and that those who do not recognize his victory are being encouraged by Western governments. However, the Tehran government has made it difficult to verify its claims as it has barred most journalists, including most foreign correspondents, from covering the demonstrations.

• Mehdi Jedinia and Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington.

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