- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iranian security forces Saturday cracked down brutally on demonstrators protesting a disputed presidential election, beating and shooting unarmed young men and women in the streets of Tehran, according to eyewitnesses and video sent from the country.

The clampdown had been expected after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shi’ite Muslim cleric who holds top powers in Iran, reaffirmed the election results on Friday and warned Iranians not to continue massive street protests challenging the purported victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

However, thousands of protesters defied the warning and gathered in downtown Tehran on Saturday afternoon. Witnesses told the Associated Press that demonstrators chanted “Death to the dictator!” and “Death to dictatorship!” in apparent reference to Ayatollah Khamenei.

An Iranian who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ali, told The Washington Times that he saw security forces near Azadi (Freedom) Square dropping tear gas canisters into buildings sheltering demonstrators, driving motorcycles into people and firing tear gas into demonstrators’ eyes. As he spoke, continuous shooting could be heard in the background along with cries and shouts.

A graphic video posted on Facebook by Goli Fassihian, a spokesperson for the National Iranian American Council, showed the body of a young woman whose face was covered in blood.

Other videos posted on Facebook and numerous other Web sites showed security forces firing into crowds of jeering demonstrators and fires raging in the streets.

A Tehran resident who asked to be identified only by her first name, Maryam, told The Times by phone that plainclothes police made no effort to arrest people near Azadi Square, choosing instead to beat or shoot them.

It was impossible to say how many people had been killed and injured. The government released no figures and journalists have been ordered to remain in their offices and not to cover any protests.

Reuters news agency reported that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate whom many Iranians believe actually won the June 12 elections, appeared in southwestern Tehran and said he was “ready for martyrdom.” The news agency, quoting an identified Mousavi ally, said Mr. Mousavi also called for a national strike if he is arrested.

Government media reported earlier that a suicide bomber blew himself up at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution.

President Obama, who has been criticized by some for not speaking out forcefully about the situation in Iran, issued his strongest statement to date, suggesting that his desire to engage with the Iranian government has been undermined by its actions since the election.

“The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

“As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion. Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”

The Iranian government earlier sought to forestall the protests by blocking protesters from gathering on the main street between Revolution and Freedom Squares, the scene on Monday of the largest protest demonstration since the 1979 revolution.

“We acted with leniency but I think from today on, we should resume law and confront more seriously,” Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam told the state broadcasting channel, according to the AP. “The events have become exhausting, bothersome and intolerable. I want them to take the police cautions seriously because we will definitely show a serious confrontation against those who violate rules.”

Hundreds of Iranian opposition politicians and journalists have been arrested and protests have taken place in cities across the nation.

As night fell on Saturday, however, many residents of Tehran took to their roofs and chanted “God is Great” as they have on previous nights since the election and as many did during the 1979 revolution.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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