TEHRAN, Iran – Thousands of protesters defied Iran’s highest authority Saturday and marched on waiting security forces that fought back with baton charges, tear gas and water cannons as the crisis over disputed elections lurched into volatile new ground.
In a separate incident, a state-run television channel reported that a suicide bombing at the shrine of the Islamic Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini killed at least two people and wounded eight. The report could not be independently evaluated due to government restrictions on journalists.
If proven true, the reports could enrage conservatives and bring strains among backers of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Another state channel broadcast images of broken glass but no other damage or casualties, and showed a witness saying three people had been wounded.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, sharpened his criticism of an Iranian government that he had hoped to engage in diplomacy.
“The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching,” Obama said in a written statement. “We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”
“The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government,” the president said. “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.”
The extent of injuries in the street battles was unclear. Some witnesses said dozens were hurt and gunfire was heard.
Some bloggers and Twitter users claimed that there had been numerous fatalities in Saturday’s unrest, reports that could not be immediately verified.
The clashes along one of Tehran’s main avenues – as described by witnesses – had far fewer demonstrators than recent mass rallies for Mousavi. But they marked another blow to authorities who sought to intimidate protesters with harsh warnings and lines of black-clad police three deep in places.
The rallies also left questions about Mousavi’s ability to hold together his protest movement, which claims that widespread fraud in June 12 elections robbed Mousavi of victory and kept hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office.
Mousavi bewildered many followers by not directly replying to the ultimatum issued Friday by Iran’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His stern order to Mousavi and others: Call off demonstrations or risk being held responsible for “bloodshed, violence and rioting.”
Mousavi’s silence was broken after the melee with another call to annul the election results. But there was no mention of the clashes – suggesting he wants to distance himself from the violence and possibly opening the door for more militant factions to break away.
Amateur video showed clashes erupting in the city of Shiraz and witnesses reported street violence in Isfahan, south of Tehran.
Other footage posted in the hours after the crackdown showed blood pouring from a young woman’s nose and mouth as frantic people try to help her. Two separate videos of the incident, each shot from a different angle, were uploaded onto the social networking sites Facebook and YouTube. The YouTube video described the location of the incident as Amirabad, central Tehran, and said the woman had been fatally shot.
“I think the regime has taken an enormous risk in confronting this situation in the manner that they have,” said Mehrdad Khonsari, a consultant to the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies.
“Now they’ll have to hold their ground and hope that people don’t keep coming back,” he added. “But history has taught us that people in these situations lose their initial sense of fear and become emboldened by brutality.”
Obama has offered to open talks with Iran to ease a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze, but the upheaval could complicate any attempts at outreach.
Full details of the street battles could not be obtained because of Iranian media restrictions. But witnesses described scenes that could sharply escalate the most serious internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
An estimated 3,000 marchers – some chanting “Death to dictatorship!” – marched directly onto a blockade of security forces keeping them from approaching Azadi Square, where Mousavi gathered hundreds of thousands of people on Monday.
Police first fired tear gas and water cannons at the protesters, witnesses said. Then came a second wave. It included volunteer militiamen on motorcycles chasing down demonstrators.
Witnesses said some marchers were beaten with batons by security forces or metal pipes wielded by the militiamen known as Basijis, who are directed by the powerful Revolutionary Guard.
An old woman cloaked in a head-to-toe black chador shouted, “Death to the dictator,” drawing the attention of Basij members who ran from the other side of the street and clubbed her, according to one witness.
Protesters lit trash bins on fire – sending pillars of black smoke over the city – and hurled rocks. Some managed to wrestle away a few motorcycles and set them ablaze.
Nearby, Tehran University was cordoned off by police and militia.
On the streets, witnesses said some protesters also shouted “Death to Khamenei!” – another sign of once unthinkable challenges to the authority of the successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Revolution.
All witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared government reprisals. Iranian authorities have placed strict limits on the ability of foreign media to cover events, banning reporting from the street and allowing only phone interviews and information from officials sources such as state TV.
Mousavi, who served was prime minister during the 1980s, is not believed to seek the collapse of the Islamic system. But he claims that state powers were abused to skew the election results and re-elect Ahmadinejad in a landslide.
That stand has increasingly brought him and his supporters into direct confrontation with Iran’s highest authorities.
A statement on Mousavi’s Web site said he and his supporters were not seeking to confront their “brothers” among Iran’s security forces or the “sacred system” that preserves the country’s freedom and independence.
“We are confronting deviations and lies. We seek to bring reform that returns us to the pure principals of the Islamic Republic,” it said.
Mousavi’s extremely slim hope of having the election results annulled rest with Iran’s Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts. But Mousavi and another candidate in the race, Mahdi Karroubi, did not appear at a meeting called to discuss their allegations of fraud, a council official told state TV.
The council has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities.
In a letter to the council, posted on Mousavi’s Web site, he listed alleged violations that include his representatives being expelled from polling stations and fake ballots at some mobile polling stations.
The government has blocked Web sites such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites used by Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence. Text messaging has not been working in Iran since last week, and cell phone service in Tehran is frequently down.
But that won’t stifle the opposition networks, said Sami Al Faraj, president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.
“They can resort to whispering … they can do it the old-fashioned way,” he said.