ISTANBUL | Iranian police opened fire on demonstrators Sunday, killing the nephew of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and several others and creating new martyrs and momentum for Iran’s opposition on the holiest day for Shi’ite Muslims.
Witnesses and opposition Web sites said that clashes took place in Tehran and at least two other cities and were the most massive in several months. Among the dead was Seyed Al Hossein Mousavi, 35.
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,” said 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.”
Grainy videos shot on cell phones and circulated on the Internet showed police vehicles on fire, overturned buses and buildings aflame in Tehran. Protesters were seen throwing stones at cowering riot police and stripping captured security forces and regime loyalists of their weapons.
The protests, which also were reported in the cities of Isfahan and Najafabad in central Iran, took place on 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 Mohammad, died in battle with the forces of an evil 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 against it.
“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, coming seven days after the death by natural causes of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali 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.
“This is an inferno that can’t be extinguished with just a splash of water,” said Delbar Tavakoli, an exiled journalist living in Turkey who has been watching developments from over the border.
In a potentially key development, 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.
“There’s fighting going on across the north of the city, and the number of killed is far more than the four whose death has been announced,” said one witness, who requested anonymity, describing the kind of weapons used as “Colts and a larger handgun. They have been spraying people with bullets.”
Clashes continued after sunset as 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 has witnessed revolutions in the early part of the last century and 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 incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won June 12 elections and that those who do not recognize his victory are being egged on by Western governments. However, the Tehran government has made it extremely difficult to verify its claims as it has barred most journalists, including most foreign correspondents, from covering the demonstrations.
• Mehdi Jedinia contributed to this report from Washington.