Hundreds of Thousands Stage Somber Rally in Iran

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Hundreds of thousands of protesters dressed
in black and green flooded the streets of Tehran on Thursday in a
somber, candlelit show of defiance and mourning for those killed in
clashes after Iran's disputed presidential election.

The massive march - the fourth this week - sent a powerful
message that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi has the popular
backing to sustain his unprecedented challenge to Iran's ruling
clerics.

Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, named the landslide winner
in the June 12 election, appeared to take the growing opposition
more seriously and backtracked on his dismissal of the protesters
as "dust" and sore losers.

The government tried to placate Mousavi and his supporters by
inviting him and two other candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad
to a meeting Saturday with Iran's main electoral authority, the
Guardian Council. Abbasali Khadkhodaei, a spokesman for the
council, said it received 646 complaints from the three candidates.

Mousavi accuses the government of widespread vote-rigging and
demands a full recount or a new election, flouting the will of
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - a man endowed with
virtually limitless powers under its constitution.

Many in the huge crowd walked silently and lit black candles as
night fell. Others wore green wristbands or ribbons and carried
flowers as they filed into Imam Khomeini Square, a large plaza in
the heart of the capital named for the founder of the Islamic
Revolution, witnesses said.

Mousavi, dressed in a black suit, was almost swallowed up by the
throng as he addressed them briefly through a handheld loudspeaker.
Press TV, an English-language version of Iranian state television
designed for foreigners, said he called for calm and self-restraint
from the crowd that the broadcaster estimated in the hundreds of
thousands.

For the fifth straight night, Ahmadinejad opponents went to
their rooftops in Tehran and cried out "Allahu akbar!" - "God is
great!." The rooftop shouting is a deeply symbolic tactic that
Mousavi borrowed from the Islamic Revolution and the idea that
people power can challenge any system. The rooftop cries were how
Khomeini asked Iran to show its unity against the shah 30 years
ago.

Hundreds of thousands, including middle-class families and
religious men and women, have flocked to Tehran's streets in recent
days to declare their support for Mousavi. Similar, smaller
protests have popped up in other cities in Iran.

Protesters have focused on the results of the balloting rather
than challenging the Islamic system of government. But a shift in
anger toward Iran's non-elected theocracy could result in a
showdown over the foundation of Iran's system of rule.

"I don't think everyone wants to end the Islamic Republic
because many people in Iran are very religious. So I think this
current movement should keep Islam in it to maintain support. Unity
is important," said a 29-year-old engineering graduate.

He, like the other witnesses the AP talked to, spoke on
condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal.

The demonstrators marched silently until they reached the
central square, where some chanted "Death to the dictator!" a
witness said. Another said protesters also warned the government:
"We will not get exhausted and we will come every day."

Television footage showed protesters making V-for-victory
gestures and holding pictures of Mousavi and signs that say
"Where's our Vote?"

The groundswell of support appears to have taken Iran's leaders
- and even Mousavi supporters - by surprise.

This week's rallies openly defied orders from Khamenei, who has
urged the people to pursue their allegations of election fraud
within the limits of the cleric-led system.

Thursday's march was similar to one on Monday, when hundreds of
thousands turned out in a huge procession that recalled the scale
of protests during the 1979 Islamic Revolution which ended the
monarchy. Seven demonstrators were shot and killed that day by
pro-regime militia in the first confirmed deaths during the unrest.

The crowds in Tehran and elsewhere have been able to organize
despite a government clampdown on the Internet and cell phones. The
government has blocked certain Web sites, such as BBC Farsi,
Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites that are vital
conduits for Iranians to tell the world about protests and
violence. Other sites are slow to connect.

Text messaging, which is a primary source of spreading
information in Tehran, has not been working since last week, and
cell phone service in Tehran is frequently down.

The government initially tried to dismiss Mousavi's election
allegations and supporter anger, but after four days of sustained
protest, Ahmadinejad appeared to backtrack on his criticism and
take the growing opposition more seriously.

"I was only addressing those who rioted, set fires and attack
people. I said they are nothing," Ahmadinejad said in a previously
taped video shown Thursday on state TV. "Every single Iranian is
valuable. Government is a service to all."

The Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 clerics and
Islamic law experts close to Khamenei, has said it was prepared to
conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates
claim irregularities. But Mousavi says the council supports
Ahmadinejad, and he has demanded an independent investigation and a
new election.

The ruling clerics still command deep public support and are
defended by Iran's most powerful military force - the Revolutionary
Guard - as well as a vast network of militias.

But Mousavi's movement has forced Khamenei into the center of
the escalating crisis, questioning his role as the final authority
on all critical issues.

"I don't think the supreme leader was that upset about the idea
of Mousavi being president. What he was upset about was the image
of this green revolution and this wave of ordinary people having
people power," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Certainly now the big
concern is if you give into these people, that suggests these sorts
of popular protests can succeed, and that's not good from
Khamenei's perspective."

Khamenei is scheduled to lead Friday's prayers, though it is
unclear what he will say, if anything, about Mousavi and the
demonstrations. At least one candidate who ran against Ahmadinejad,
reformist Mahdi Karroubi, has said he will attend the service at
Tehran University.

It was not known if Mousavi or Ahmadinejad would be there,
although the president normally attends Friday prayers when
Khamenei leads them.

Shortly after the election, Mousavi appealed for the backing of
clerics in the holy city of Qom, Iran's seat of Islamic learning
and a critical political base for the theocracy. He received shows
of solidarity from several liberal ayatollahs but has not captured
widespread support.

Ahmadinejad appears similarly unable to draw the support of the
country's highest-ranking clerics, whose rulings are followed by
vast numbers of Iranians. Many congratulated Khamenei for holding
the election but any mention of Ahmadinejad's victory was
noticeably absent.

Mohsen Rezaei, a conservative who also ran for president, said
there was pressure on some religious leaders to support the
election results.

"Over the past three nights, some go to a nearby city and
harshly ask why they do not take their stance (to support the
results)," Rezaei said on state TV Thursday, without elaborating.

Some analysts suggest Mousavi, who was prime minister in the
1980s, is not looking to change the core foundations of Iran's
Islamic regime.

"He is a leader of a revolution against a system of which he's
been an integral part of," said Mehran Kamrawa, director of the
Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown
University in Qatar.

There have been widespread accusations of nighttime attacks on
Mousavi supporters by pro-government militia, and protesters
attacked a militia building after one rally. But both sides have
been restrained, with uniformed police and other security forces
standing by as protesters march calmly through the streets.

The Iranian government directly accused the United States of
meddling in the deepening crisis. A statement by state-run Press TV
blamed Washington for "intolerable" interference. The report, on
Press TV, cited no evidence.

On Thursday, state TV said four people had been arrested in Iran
for allegedly plotting to set off bombs on election day. It aired
what it described as a confession by one of the arrested, who said
he has been working with Americans.


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