- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

TEHRAN | Tens of thousands of hard-liners poured into the streets in support of Iran’s clerical rulers at state-sponsored rallies Wednesday, some chanting calls for the execution of opposition leaders as the country’s internal strife turned more bitter.

Some wore white funeral shrouds to symbolize a willingness to die in defense of the ruling system. An ominous online threat in the name of a previously unknown group said suicide squads were ready to assassinate the opposition leaders should the judiciary fail to punish them within a week.

The display of popular support for the government and the stirring, violent rhetoric from the crowd appeared to be a genuine outpouring, though some supporters were bused in by the government. The rallies showed Iran’s rulers could forcefully take back control of the streets after opposition demonstrations Sunday that triggered the worst bloodshed since the height of the unrest over the summer.

Iran’s official news agency reported that the top two opposition leaders fled Tehran. But the son of one of the men, Mahdi Karroubi, disputed that report and told the Associated Press that Mr. Karroubi and the other leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, were both at their homes in Tehran.

“The people who must escape are the ones whose hands are tainted with the blood of Iranian people,” Taghi Karroubi said. “Unfortunately, the government news agency is spreading false news like the government itself.”

Despite the pro-government outpouring, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a rare, candid acknowledgment that the country’s Islamic rulers had lost some supporters since the disputed presidential election in June. Still, he put the blame squarely on the hands of the pro-reform opposition leaders.

“The reality in the society is that as some [supporters] dropped out, twice that number joined [us],” he said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

Wednesday’s rallies drew tens of thousands of government supporters in Shiraz, Arak, Qom, Isfahan and Tehran, among other cities. Demonstrators in Tehran chanted “Death to Mousavi.” Some shouted “Rioter hypocrites must be executed” and held up a banner that read: “We sacrifice our blood for the supreme leader.”

The government gave all civil servants and employees a day off to attend rallies and organized buses to transport groups of schoolchildren and supporters from outlying rural areas to the protests.

At least eight people were killed in street violence Sunday, the country’s worst unrest since the aftermath of the June 12 election. One of those killed Sunday was the nephew of Mr. Mousavi.

The opposition says Ali Mousavi was shot and killed by security forces. But Iran’s deputy police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, was quoted by IRNA as saying that the way he was killed suggests he was assassinated while walking by unidentified assailants. The New York Times has quoted a family friend as saying he was run over by a vehicle outside his home in an assassination.

Ali Mousavi was buried Wednesday in a hastily organized ceremony that was attended by the opposition leader and other family members. Authorities had taken his body from the hospital earlier in the week in what was seen as an attempt to prevent the funeral from turning into another pro-opposition protest.

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