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Dozens hurt in Iran; even firmer hand vowed

As police beat protesters in Tehran, the nation's police chief says that his response will only get tougher if anti-government protests continue.
Image: Iranian police sit on motorcycles as they face protesters during a demonstration in Tehran
Iranian police face off against protesters in Tehran on Saturday. Police used tear gas and batons to break up anti-government crowds.- / AFP-Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

As police beat and fired tear gas at protesters in Tehran who defied a ban and the country's supreme leader, the nation's police chief said Saturday that his response would only get tougher if anti-government protests continue. Dozens of people were injured, and there were unconfirmed reports that several were killed.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Iran to halt the "violent and unjust" crackdown, his bluntest language yet on the crisis. "Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," Obama said in a written statement.

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 be not independently evaluated because of 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.

‘Ready for martyrdom’Mousavi did not appear at the main clashes near Revolution Square on Saturday, but a supporter said he did make a public address in southwest Tehran, urging backers to stage a national strike if he is arrested.

"Mousavi said he was ready for martyrdom and that he would continue his path," the ally, who asked not to be named, told Reuters by telephone.

And the semi-official Fars news agency later reported that Mousavi had issued a statement to supporters that he was not challenging the Islamic state. But, he reportedly added, by not allowing legal rallies, the Islamic state could face "dangerous consequences."

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 hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office.

Video of clashesMousavi 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."

An image grab taken from Iran's satellite English-language official Press TV station shows a burning bus during a demonstration in Tehran on June 20, 2009. Thousands of Iranians clashed with police as they defied an ultimatum from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for an end to protests over last week's disputed presidential election.- / PRESS TV

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 southern 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 tried 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.

A police commander sharpened the message Saturday. Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam said more than a week of unrest and marches had become "exhausting, bothersome and intolerable." He threatened a more "serious confrontation" if protesters return.

Police and militia did try to bar people from entering Freedom Street, which runs from Freedom Square to Revolution Square, to prevent a mass gathering, witnesses said.

NBC News Iran bureau chief Ali Arouzi said he had never ever seen so many police on the streets at once.

Witnesses said between 50 and 60 protesters were seriously beaten by police and pro-government militia and taken to a hospital. People could be seen dragging away comrades bloodied by baton strikes.

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.

In a letter to Iran's Guardian Council, which investigates voting fraud allegations, Mousavi listed violations that he says are proof that the June 12 vote should be annulled. He said some ballot boxes had been sealed before voting began, thousands of his representatives had been expelled from polling stations and some mobile polling stations had ballot boxes filled with fake ballots.

Khamenei sided firmly with Ahmadinejad on Friday, saying the vote reflected popular will and ordering opposition leaders to end street protests.

A report on Press TV listed the fallout from the unrest, including 700 buildings and 300 banks damaged and 400 police hurt. It gave no similar list for the protesters. At least seven people have died, according to the official Iranian count, but the total could be more.

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 moderate 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 one of 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.

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