ISTANBUL, Turkey — Iran saw its deadliest day of protests in six months on Sunday as hundreds of thousands of people clashed with security forces on the streets of major cities at the climax of a Shiite religious festival.
At least four people were reportedly killed in incidents where regime forces shot live gunfire into crowds, according to those identifying with reformist groups.
Witnesses described demonstrators constructing street barricades and fighting against security forces for the control of squares.
Reports from reformist sources claimed that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had been transported to a military base in a helicopter from his residence in central Tehran. Witnesses described helicopters hovering over central Tehran.
“There’s fighting going on across the north of the city, and the number of killed is far more than the four whose death has been announced,” said one witness, who described the kind of weapons used as “Colts and a larger handgun.”
“They have been spraying people with bullets,” said the witness.
The reformist Rahesabz news agency reported that officers were refusing to shoot into crowds as per their commanders’ instructions and aiming at the sky, instead.
|An Iranian opposition supporter chases a riot policeman in Tehran, Dec. 27.
“It’s pure political suicide to kill people on Ashura of all days,” said Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, an analyst and Ph.D. candidate in contemporary Iranian history at London University. “They become instant martyrs.”
The Internet buzzed with grainy video purporting to show demonstrators exchanging body blows with security forces, torching police motorcycles and vans and fighting for control of key squares and overpasses in the Iranian capital. Government aligned news sources ignored the rioting or described the protesters as "deluded thugs."
"Zionist, British and foreign media sought for a long time to incite rioting on the day of the Ashura but, despite the presence of large numbers of mourners (supporters of Mousavi and Karroubi) were incapable of carrying out their pre-planned agendas" reported the conservative Fars news agency, referring to the failed reformist presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, implying that ordinary people who were supporters of the government dispursed the protesters. "After the midday prayers, (the mourners) purified the streets of these elements."
According to contacts inside the country who cannot be named for their own security, crowds circulated among a sea of jammed honking cars encompassing most of central Tehran stretching from Tehran’s Azadi Square to Baharestan.
By contrast, the miles of Tehran’s labyrinthine bazaar were shuttered and silent for the anniversary.
Protesters adapted slogans from the 1979 Iranian Revolution, shouting “I will kill, I will kill those who kill my brother,” and “This is the month of blood, the Supreme Leader is toppled.”
Amateur footage and photographs showed crowds kicking an isolated Bassij militiaman or pelting a cornered troop of anti-riot police with stones. Under an unidentified overpass, fire fighters kept onlookers back from an overturned police van. Witnesses reported seeing teargas and black smoke drifting over the capital and the sound of live rounds being fired.
“We’re getting into the final stage of the confrontation, and the ruling clique is waving all pretences of respect to faith, tradition and memory goodbye,” said Randjbar-Daemi. “Moharram is a month of truce, so the authorities in Iran are violating everything. It’s a regime that is feeling and smelling its own demise, ready to embark onto everything in order to avoid the sinking ship from capsizing.”
With the exception of a handful of foreign correspondents, journalists have been expelled from Iran since the disputed presidential elections in June.
In the absence of permission to hold their own rallies, Iran’s opposition activists have piggybacked onto regime-orchestrated demonstrations to get their message out. The death of natural causes of Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri last week revitalised the movement and witnessed the spread of protests to heretofore peaceful parts of the country.