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Huge turnout at pro-government rallies in Iran

Tens of thousands of hard-line government supporters turned out for state-sponsored rallies in Iran, some of them calling for the execution of opposition leaders.
/ Source: news services

Tens of thousands of hard-line government supporters turned out for state-sponsored rallies Wednesday, some of them calling for the execution of opposition leaders as Iran's police chief threatened to show "no mercy" in crushing any new protests by the pro-reform movement.

Amid the pro-government fervor, Iran's official news agency reported that the top two opposition leaders have fled the capital, Tehran. But a close relative of one of the men, Mahdi Karroubi, told The Associated Press the report by the IRNA news agency was wrong and that Karroubi and the other leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, were both at their homes in Tehran.

The relative spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Pro-government rallies were staged in Shiraz, Arak, Qom, Tehran among other cities. Demonstrators at a rally in Tehran chanted "Death to Mousavi," a reference to opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Some shouted "Rioter hypocrites must be executed" and held up a banner that read: "We sacrifice our blood for supreme leader."

The government gave all civil servants and employees a day off to attend the rallies and organized buses to transport groups of schoolchildren and supporters from outlying rural areas to the protests.

Hardline cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda called opponents of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supporters of Satan.

"Enemies of the leader, according to the Quran, belong to the party of Satan," Alamolhoda told demonstrators in Tehran in comments broadcast on state TV. "Our war in the world is war against the opponents of the rule of the supreme leader."

In a surprising acknowledgment of the opposition's impact, Khamenei said Wednesday that the country's Islamic rulers have lost some supporters since the disputed presidential election in June first triggered the turmoil. Still, he blamed the pro-reform opposition leaders for Iran's problems.

"The reality in the society is that as some (supporters) dropped out, twice that number joined (us)," he was qouted as saying by the IRNA news agency.

'Era of tolerance is over'
Separately, police chief Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam warned protesters to stay off the streets or face harsh consequences. At least eight people were killed in street violence Sunday, the country's worst unrest since the aftermath of the disputed presidential election on June 12.

"In dealing with previous protests, police showed leniency. But given that these opponents are seeking to topple (the ruling system), there will be no mercy," Moghaddam said, according to IRNA. "We will take severe action. The era of tolerance is over. Anyone attending such rallies will be crushed."

One of those killed Sunday was the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Iran's deputy police chief said Ali Mousavi was assassinated by unidentified assailants and not killed by security forces.

Ali Mousavi was buried Wednesday in a hastily organized ceremony. Authorities had taken his body from the hospital earlier in the week in what was seen as an attempt to prevent the funeral from turning into another pro-opposition protest.

The opposition says Ali Mousavi was shot and killed by security forces. But Iran's deputy police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, was quoted by IRNA as saying that the way he was killed suggests he was assassinated while walking. The New York Times has quoted a family friend as saying he was run over by a vehicle outside his home in an assassination.

The opposition leader and other family members attended the funeral.

Iranian authorities faced uncomfortable questions about a graphic video broadcast on the Internet purportedly from Sunday's demonstrations. It showed two white police pickup trucks, with large bullbars on the front bumpers, plowing separately into a group of protesters.

One truck is first seen driving into the crowd, then reversing away from a body lying face down on the asphalt. The second truck then speeds up and runs over the body, lying in a pool of blood, as people nearby cry out. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.

When asked about the video and whether police trucks intentionally ran over people, Moghaddam became enraged. "Don't ask lies," he said. "There are no pictures showing police cars running over people."

Hundreds arrested
The police chief said more than 500 protesters who took part in Sunday's demonstrations have been arrested but the number may be higher since hardline Basij militiamen and intelligence agents may have apprehended more people on their own.

The deputy, Radan, said police have a video showing a black car running over two people during Sunday's violence. He said the owner of the car had been arrested but provided no other details.

There are increasing fears Mousavi could also be arrested, following detention of a number of prominent activists and the sister of Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi.

The government has also limited the movement of a leading opposition figure, Mahdi Karroubi, by refusing to protect him when he leaves his home.

Karroubi and Mousavi were the two defeated reformist candidates in the disputed June election, which set off the worst unrest in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Authorities are also tightly restricting media coverage of street rallies, Internet access in the country is sporadic, as are cell phone and text messaging services.

Sunday's deadly protests coincided with Ashoura, the most solemn day of the year for Shiite Muslims. The observance commemorates the 7th-century death in battle of one of Shiite Islam's most beloved saints, and it conveys a message of sacrifice in the face of repression.

Hard-liners are especially furious that some of the protesters insulted Supreme Leader, casting aside a taboo on personal criticism of the leader. The government has said the protesters are a tiny minority, and accused the U.S. and Britain of organizing the opposition.

'Nauseating masquerade'
The hard-line criticism has become increasingly vocal, with some activists threatening to take the law into their own hands.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, locked in a row with the West over Iran's nuclear program, described the opposition rallies as a foreign-backed "nauseating masquerade."

The arrests, along with the tough criticism of the U.S. and Britain, added to rising tensions with the West, which is threatening to impose tough new sanctions over Iran's suspect nuclear program and has criticized the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.

On Wednesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the government to keep security forces from using excessive force. She said she was "shocked by the upsurge in deaths, injuries and arrests" and stressed the people have the right to peacefully protest without being beaten and thrown into jail.