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Tehran erupts in riots over disputed election

Sun., June 14, 2009

High turnout in Iran should have favored challenger

TEHRAN, Iran – Huge swaths of the Iranian capital erupted in fiery riots that stretched into the early hours today as hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared victory in his quest for a second term amid allegations of widespread fraud and reports that his main challenger had been placed under house arrest.

At the same moment the president was promising a “bright and glorious future” for Iran in a late-night televised address, supporters of reformist rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi were battling with police and militiamen in riot gear throughout Tehran in the most serious clashes in the capital since a student uprising 10 years ago.

In the streets and squares where young Iranians had danced and waved green banners in support of Mousavi days ago, baton-wielding police chased and beat mobs of hundreds of demonstrators who chanted, “Down with dictatorship!” and “Give me my vote back!” Searing smoke and the smell of burning trash bins and tear gas filled the night sky as protesters ripped up Iranian flags, which had become the symbol of the Ahmadinejad campaign.

Official results released by the Interior Ministry, which is under the control of the president, showed Ahmadinejad with more than 63 percent of the vote – a surprise performance given turnout figures of 80 percent and hours-long lines of city dwellers mostly opposed to Ahmadinejad. Mousavi received only 35 percent of the vote, according to the results.

The Obama administration, which has sought to reach out to the Islamic republic, expressed concern about the results, as many here predicted a new wave of repression to crush the outpouring of civic participation that had swelled during the election season.

“Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities.”

Both Mousavi and fellow reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi strongly disputed the results in public statements. Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament, called the results “engineered” and “ridiculous.”

After security forces prevented journalists from attending an early afternoon news conference he tried to hold, Mousavi, a former prime minister, released a statement alleging a conspiracy to manipulate the vote results, which he claimed showed he was the winner.

“I will not submit to this dangerous charade,” he insisted. He had announced a long list of alleged irregularities, including thousands of his poll monitors being barred from the voting stations, the previous night. Iran allows no independent observers to monitor the vote.

As the day drew to a close, both campaigns reported that the candidates were under house arrest hours after their offices and affiliated Web sites had been shuttered.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top political and religious leader, ignored the dispute over Friday’s vote and hailed the 80 percent turnout as a great victory for the nation against the plots of its enemies.

The supreme leader’s approval means Mousavi supporters have no legal recourse to contest the vote.

But even as the results were released and effusively praised, demonstrators allied with Mousavi defied Iran’s restrictions on unauthorized public gatherings and began setting fire to garbage bins and assembling in rowdy protests.

A demonstration formed in north central Tehran’s Vanak Square in midafternoon. Mostly young protesters, some wearing surgical masks to guard against tear-gas attacks, set fires and blocked traffic as older Iranians stood along the sidelines cheering them on, occasionally joining in the chanting.

Passing drivers honked in support. A woman with her headscarf ripped off screamed defiantly at the stunned security officers who had just beaten her.

“It’s a fraud,” said one female Mousavi supporter, who declined to give her name. “I can’t believe it. Last night we celebrated victory. And this morning Ahmadinejad was the winner.”

On a side street near northwest Tehran’s Mohseni Square, a group of helmeted hard-line Ansar Hezbollah militiamen on motorcycles rhythmically beat their batons on their riot shields as they prepared to attack a gathering crowd of protesters.

“God is great!” they chanted. “God praise Hezbollah!”

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