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Iran’s Forces Battle Protests Nationwide

February 23, 2011

The Wall Street Journal, 21 Feb 2011: For a second time in a week, Iran’s opposition drew tens of thousands of supporters to the streets across the nation on Sunday calling for the end to the Islamic Republic’s rule.

In response, the government unleashed what witnesses said was an extraordinary number of security forces to violently battle the crowds. Witnesses said mobs of anti-riot police and plainclothes Basij militia lined the streets and on several occasions fired directly into the crowd and beat protesters with steel batons. In one neighborhood, the Basij took over a commercial building and dropped tear gas canisters from the roof onto the protesters, witnesses said.

Basij militia dressed in black shot and killed two young men in Tehran’s Vanak and Vali Asr squares, according to witness accounts posted on opposition websites. The victims haven’t been identified. Dozens have been injured and arrested, according to witnesses.

“This was the most violent protest we’ve had by far, and people were also really angry and fearless,” said one witness from Tehran, adding that the public seemed resolved to stay on the street.

Opposition called for a mass demonstration on Sunday to commemorate the seventh day of mourning for two slain students, Sanah Jaleh, 26 years old, and Mohamad Mokhtari, 22, who were shot dead on Monday when security forces attacked a crowd.

The opposition movement is banking on momentum created by a wave of antigovernment uprisings across the Middle East, as well as public uproar at the killing of the two students and the government’s attempt to exploit their deaths by claiming falsely they supported the regime.

For a second time in a week, Iran’s opposition drew tens of thousands of supporters to the streets across the nation on Sunday.

“Freedom is near, join us in the streets,” said one posting on the Facebook group created for Sunday’s demonstrations.

“Step outside your door, every street is Freedom Square,” said another.

In Tehran, protesters targeted government buildings such as the national broadcast company Seda va Sima—seen as a mouthpiece for the regime— chanting “God is great” and “Death to the dictator,” witnesses reported on opposition websites.

Protesters continued to focus on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shouting, “It’s the season for revolts; it’s the end of Khamenei.”

Tehran’s municipality reportedly removed trash bins from most neighborhoods because they were being set on fire by crowds, according to witnesses.

Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and an outspoken supporter of the opposition, was briefly arrested and then released as she marched with protesters in Tehran, according to the official news agency IRNA.

Similar protests erupted in nearly every major Iranian city on Sunday with reports of dozens violently injured and arrested, according to witnesses.

Journalists were banned from covering the event and the Ministry of Information sent a letter to foreign media offices in Tehran warning that their bureaus would be shut down and their reporters deported if they wrote “negative articles” surrounding the opposition protests.

As battles raged and gunshots were heard around the city, the official news agency IRNA reported the situation in Tehran was “completely quiet and normal.”

Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was in Tehran on Sunday meeting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to obtain the release of two German journalists detained for four months. The journalists were released and arrived in Berlin with the minister, but some Iranian opposition groups criticized Germany for sending an envoy to strike a deal with Iran’s government while a pro-democracy movement rocked the region.

A spokesperson for the foreign ministry said, “The minister’s trip only served a humanitarian purpose,” according to media reports.

The government had warned it would crackdown on any illegal gatherings. Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, warned the public that Sunday’s protests would be bloody because the “opposition plans to shoot people.”

Iran’s opposition has now labeled the struggle as a fight against “a religious dictatorship,” according to a statement endorsed Friday by opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi.

The two have been placed under strict house arrest with very little communication with the outside world since tens of thousands of supporters took to the streets of Iran this past Monday. Their bodyguards, from the Revolutionary Guards elite Ansar Mehdi branch, was dismissed and intelligence agents took over their protection, according to their websites.



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