Iranian protesters defied the hard line regime and clashed with riot police in Tehran Wednesday, throwing rocks and shouting anti-government slogans before cops dispersed them with beatings, tear gas and live bullets, witnesses said.
Security forces appeared to vastly outnumber the demonstrators in the confrontation in Baharestan Square, witnesses told The Associated Press. They said some demonstrators fought back while others fled to another Tehran plaza, Sepah Square, about a mile to the north. The violence underscored the regime's determined efforts to end the protests that have been occurring since the disputed presidential election.
At least 17 protesters have been killed since the June 12 election, which hard line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won over reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The dead include Neda Soldan, the 26-year-old woman whose slaying by a sniper was captured on cellphone video and posted on the Internet, becoming a rallying cry for opposition forces in Iran and around the world.
While demonstrations have dwindled from estimates reaching one million to the several hundred reported Wednesday, Iranians are using more subtle means to express their anger at the elections and the regime's brutality. Residents have been turning on the headlights of cars, refusing to go to work, shouting from rooftops and holding up posters since being banned by the government from gathering in public.
"People are calmly protesting, more symbolically than with their voices," a Tehran resident said in a telephone interview, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution.
Perhaps fearing that mourning the dead could fan the flames of anger against the government, the bodies of slain protesters have been quickly buried by the government and there have been reports of families being charged $3,000 "bullet fees" to reclaim their dead.
Initially, Mousavi supporters flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities after the vote, massing by the hundreds of thousands in protests larger than any since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Security forces initially stood by and permitted the demonstrations. But the government, which is controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei and a council of clerics, has shown no quarter. It has refused to revisit the election and its harsh measures have quelled public protests.
The government has also been broadcasting "confessions" by arrested protesters, in which they denounce their own actions and blame the U.S. and Britain for inspiring the demonstrations. On Wednesday, Iranian authorities said they have arrested several foreign nationals "with links to the West and Israel," accusing them of planning bombings and spreading propaganda, according to CNN.
Mousavi, who has defiantly said he is ready to become a martyr for the opposition movement and urged protesters to use the nonviolent tactics of Gandhi, under 24-hour guard by secret police and no longer able to communicate with the protesters who have been rallying around his campaign, according to the British newspaper the Independent. Iranian newspapers sympathetic to the regime on Wednesday called for the arrest of Mousavi, a former prime minister.
Mousavi's Web site had said a protest was planned near the parliament building on Wednesday, but the candidate said it was not organized by him. However, Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a former university dean who campaigned beside him, said on another of his Web sites that his followers had the constitutional right to protest and the government should not deal with them "as if martial law has been imposed in the streets."
She called for the release of all activists and others arrested at protests. A third candidate in the election, Mahdi Karroubi, has called for the day of mourning on Thursday to lament the slain protesters.
Meanwhile, the dubious election and vicious tactics of the hard line regime continued to isolate the Iranian government internationally. President Obama on Tuesday said the world is "appalled and outraged" by Tehran's actions, and called the video of Neda's death "heartbreaking." Britain kicked Iranian diplomats out of the country and dissident expatriates continued to condemn Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi asked European Union officials in Brussels not to negotiate or hold meetings with Iranian leaders until the crackdown stops.
In Rome, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf said he had been asked by Mousavi aides to spread the word on what is happening in Iran. Makhmalbaf said that even if Ahmadinejad manages to govern for the next four years, "he will not have one day of quietness," with protesters continuing their passive protests with general strikes and civil resistance.
"The regime, arguably, is losing ground, not the protests," he said. "Ordinary Iranians are openly rejecting the legitimacy and power of Ayatollah Khamanei. That is entirely new, unheard of."