Protests hit Tehran after Ahmadinejad wins
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Thousands of people clashed with police Saturday after the disputed election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked the biggest protests in Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranians to respect Ahmadinejad's victory in an presidential election that his closest challenger described as a "dangerous charade."
Ahmadinejad's triumph in Friday's vote upset expectations that reformist candidate Mirhossein Mousavi might win the race.
Up to 3,000 Mousavi supporters took part in the protests. In one place, some chanted, "What happened to our vote?."
Others chanted anti-Ahmadinejad slogans, bringing traffic to a standstill. "We are Iranians too," and "Mousavi is our president," they shouted.
Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, an Ahmadinejad ally, declared the president had been re-elected to a second four-year term with 62.6 percent of the vote, against 33.7 percent for Mousavi, in a record 85 percent turnout.
Mousavi protested against what he called violations and vote-rigging during the election. Interior Ministry officials rejected the allegations.
Mousavi said members of his election headquarters had been beaten "with batons, wooden sticks and electrical rods."
In one incident police on motorcycles beat Mousavi backers who were staging a sit-in protest at the capital's Vanak square.
At Tehran University, some 100 police with helmets and shields used tear and pepper gas as they chased 300-400 students, who were chanting: "People: support us, support us."
Shops in the area were closed and small fires were burning on the street. Police later cordoned off the university area and were attacking student demonstrators, witnesses said.
A witness also said he had heard shots fired near a busy street in northern Tehran but it was not clear who was shooting and why.
Khamenei, Iran's top authority, told defeated candidates and their supporters to avoid "provocative behavior."
"The chosen and respected president is the president of all the Iranian nation and everyone, including yesterday's competitors, must unanimously support and help him," Khamenei said in a statement read on state television.
Mousavi, a veteran of the 1979 Islamic revolution, protested against what he said were many obvious election violations.
"I'm warning I will not surrender to this dangerous charade. The result of such performance by some officials will jeopardize the pillars of the Islamic Republic and will establish tyranny," Mousavi said in a statement made available to Reuters.
Mousavi urged senior clerics in Iran's Shi'ite religious center of Qom to speak out.
"Today all the ways to preserve our rights are closed. Silence of the ulema and grand ayatollahs may create more harm than fixing voting," he said in a statement on his website.
Iranian and Western analysts said Ahmadinejad's re-election would disappoint Western powers aiming to convince Iran to halt a nuclear program they suspect is aimed at making bombs, and could further complicate efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama to reach out to Tehran.
"It doesn't augur well for an early and peaceful settlement of the nuclear dispute," said Mark Fitzpatrick at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was monitoring the outcome of the election closely and hoped the results reflected the will of the Iranian people.
A bitter campaign generated intense excitement inside Iran and revealed deep divisions between those backing Ahmadinejad and those pushing for social and political change.
Ahmadinejad accused his rivals of undermining the Islamic Republic by advocating detente with the West. Mousavi said the president's "extremist" foreign policy had humiliated Iranians.
Friday night, before official results emerged, Mousavi had claimed to be the "definite winner." He said many people had been unable to vote and ballot papers were lacking.
He also accused authorities of blocking text messaging, with which his campaign tried to reach young, urban voters.
Saturday, Iran's students' news agency ISNA quoted Tehran's Deputy Prosecutor General Mahmoud Salarkia as saying 10 people had been detained for "agitating public opinion through websites and blogs by propagating untruthful reports."
Ahmadinejad draws most of his support from rural areas and poorer big city neighborhoods. Mousavi enjoys strong backing in wealthier urban centres, especially among women and the young.
Two other candidates attracted only minimal support.
Ahmadinejad, 52, won power four years ago, vowing to revive the values of the Islamic revolution. He has expanded the nuclear program, which Iran says is only for electricity generation, and stirred international outrage by denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map.
(Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb, Hashem Kalantari, Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran and Alistair Lyon in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans and Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Myra MacDonald)