- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

TEHRAN | Security forces and militiamen clashed with thousands of protesters shouting “death to the dictator” outside Tehran University on Monday, beating them with batons and firing tear gas on a day of nationwide student demonstrations, witnesses said.

The protests were the largest in months - bigger than the last major rallies on Nov. 4. The turnout showed how the young, and particularly university students, have become the most fervent proponents of street action to protest June’s disputed presidential election.

Thousands of riot police as well as forces of the elite Revolutionary Guard and their allied Basij militiamen flooded the area around Tehran University beginning in the morning, trying to seal off the campus from the outside world and prevent unrest from spilling out into the streets.

Authorities covered the tall fence around the university with banners and signs bearing slogans from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hiding whatever took place inside. Cell phone networks around the universities were shut down, and police and Revolutionary Guard members surrounded entrances, checking IDs of anyone entering to bar opposition activists, witnesses said.

YouTube video of demonstrations in Iran

“There’s anxiety that there will be violence and shooting. I shout slogans and demonstrate but try not to provoke any clash with the security,” Tehran University student Kouhyar Goudarzi told the Associated Press in Beirut by telephone. “We are worried.”

The fiercest violence was on the streets outside Tehran University. Thousands of protesters massed in support of the students, some chanting “death to the dictator,” witnesses said. Footage posted on YouTube showed some protesters burning pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei - breaking a major taboo against insulting the supreme leader, who stands at the pinnacle of Iran’s clerical leadership.

Riot police fired tear gas, and Basij militiamen, some on motorcycles, charged the crowds. The plainclothes Basijis beat protesters on their heads and shoulders as the crowd scattered. The protesters regrouped on nearby street corners, setting tires and garbage on fire to ward off the stinging tear gas. Nearby, protesters and Basijis pelted each other with large stones, the witnesses said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Shots were heard on nearby Enghelab Street, witnesses said. Pro-opposition Web sites reported that at least one protester was wounded in the area, but the reports could not be independently confirmed.

Inside Tehran University, hard-line students loyal to the government scuffled with protesters, and some fist-fights broke out. In one photo obtained by the Associated Press, a pro-reform student wearing a green headband had blood streaming down his face after a beating. A young woman overcome by tear gas slumped to the ground as two other students tried to help her.

At the same time, the hard-line students - numbering about 2,000 - held their own march through the university. They waved pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei or Iranian flags and chanted “death to the hypocrites,” a reference to Mir Hossein Mousavi and other opposition leaders.

Protests erupted at seven other universities in Tehran and on campuses in at least six other cities, the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported.

Journalists working for foreign media organizations, including the Associated Press, were banned from covering Monday’s protests.

Authorities have arrested well over 100 student leaders in past weeks, looking to blunt Monday’s protests.

Students at Tehran University played a major role in street demonstrations in support of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought clerics to power. But in the past decade, universities have become strongholds for the pro-reform opposition, which seeks to reduce the clerics’ domination of politics.

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