By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RLAs Iranians gathered to celebrate the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura on December 27, Tehran witnessed some of its worse violence since just after the disputed June 12 presidential contest that plunged the Islamic Republic into crisis. Some Iran observers believe the events, in which clashes between opposition protesters and security forces resulted in protesters' deaths and injuries on both sides, mark a turning point in the months-long political crisis.
An opposition supporter stands near a police motorcycle set on fire during clashes
with security forces in Tehran on December 27 (photo: TehranLive.org)
Violence had been seen before; the opposition
estimates that 72 people had been killed prior to the December 27 violence, and
early protests included a fire-bomb attack on a Basij militia post. But the past
violence was weighted heavily on the side of the authorities, while the
opposition for the most part employed civil disobedience through peaceful
Ashura is usually marked by religious gatherings and marches in which people beat their chests and weep in memory of the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammad's grandson, Imam Hossein, but those scenes were replaced this year with video images showing street battles that transformed central Tehran into a war zone.
protesters triumphantly display the helmet belonging to the security forces
Photos: War In Tehran Streets on Ashura Day
Witnesses told RFE/RL that in the course of the
Ashura events, security forces shot directly at people and attacked them with
batons and tear gas. They described chaos in the streets and blood on the
sidewalks, and reported fire and heavy smoke in some parts of Tehran. Instead of
religious slogans, protesters chanted against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, with some calling him a murderer.
One young Iranian man, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said: "It wasn't a Green Ashura, it was a red Ashura -- a bloody Ashura."
Eight protesters were reported killed as a result of the violence. Among them was 35-year-old Ali Musavi, the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, who finished second to incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 vote.
WATCH: A video from the December 27 clashes in Vali Asr Square in Tehran shows a protester who has been seriously injured in the clashes. (Warning: graphic images)
Reports emerged today that authorities were
continuing to round up dissenters. After Iranian police said they had detained
about 300 people, an opposition website (Parlemannews) claimed today that seven
prominent oppositionists were among them, including three aides to Mir Hossein
Musavi and prominent human rights activists Emad Baghi and Ebrahim Yazdi, a
former foreign minister.
Ali Keshtgar, a Paris-based political activist, tells Radio Farda that the violence seen on Ashura is unprecedented in Iran's modern history, and said the clerical establishment has undermined its religious claims.
The violence was carried out "by an establishment that claims it is a supporter of religious tradition," Keshtgar said. "We had never witnessed in the past 100 years a government shooting at people on Ashura. This government did it."
Amateur video captured by citizen journalists show demonstrators fighting riot police and security forces, detaining them, and even setting their uniforms, automobiles, and motorcycles on fire.
A Tehran-based journalist, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said the protesters' use of violence was significant.
Women Fought Back (photo www.kosof.com)
Protesters "stood against the repressive forces
and plainclothes agents and they demonstrated that they have the ability to
confront them and even make them retreat. This is, I think, the new message of
the Green movement," the journalist said. "I hope that those who are concerned
about the country listen to this message and prevent more bloodshed."
Limited Options For The Regime
Keshtgar believes there are now two options facing the clerical establishment.
"Khamenei can either retreat in the face of people's demands, or the Islamic establishment will move toward collapse," Keshtgar said.
Keshtgar believes that the Ashura protests in Tehran -- and several other cities, including Qom, Isfahan, Najafabad, and Shiraz -- demonstrate that the opposition movement will not retreat in the face of violence.
"The policy of repression of the Islamic Republic has failed," he says.
Tehran-based national religious activist Morteza Kazemiam, however, warns that the establishment appears equally determined to step up its crackdown.
"Unfortunately, it appears that the extremist [wing] in the establishment has the upper hand and is not ready to submit to the demands of the people," Kazemiam said.
Some protesters are protecting cornered security forces
Photos: War In Tehran Streets on Ashura Day
As the crisis continues, parallels are
increasingly being drawn with the events and protests three decades ago that led
to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the fall of the Shah Reza Shah Pahlavi.
On the evening of December 27, opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, a founding father of the Islamic Revolution who ran as a candidate in the June presidential vote, said that even the Shah respected Ashura.
"What's happened to us when the establishment spills blood on Ashura, and sends a group of savage individuals to confront the people?" Karrubi wrote in a message posted on opposition websites.
Radio Farda broadcasters Elaheh Ravanshad and Ruzbeh Bolhari contributed to this report.
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