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Pro-Government Rallies Reported Across Iran

Iranian protesters throw rocks at riot police in Tehran on December 27 (photo: Sara).
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of government supporters have rallied, state media said, and a reformist party called on Iran's rulers to apologize to the nation two days after eight people were killed in antigovernment protests.

The rallies today called for the punishment of opposition leaders for fomenting unrest after June's disputed presidential poll, which was won by hard-liner Mahmud Ahmadinejad, state media reported.

The elite Revolutionary Guards accused the foreign media of joining hands with the opposition to harm the Islamic state and the British ambassador to Tehran was summoned by the Iranian government to be accused of "interference" in state matters.

"If Britain does not stop talking nonsense, it will get a slap in the mouth," Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said. The British government said their envoy would respond "robustly" to any criticism.

The establishment intensified a crackdown on the reform movement on December 27 by rounding up leading moderates to try to end street protests after the deadly weekend clashes erupted during the Shi'ite Muslim religious ritual of Ashura.

At least 20 opposition figures have been arrested since December 27, including three senior advisers to opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, his brother-in-law, and a sister of Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, opposition websites reported. Ebadi confirmed her sister's arrest.

Political turmoil has entered a new phase in Iran with bloody face-offs and arrests, with security forces calling on authorities to deal "firmly" with opposition leaders.

"Trying to overthrow the system will reach nowhere...designers of the unrest will soon pay the cost of their insolence," the Revolutionary Guards said in a statement. "The opposition, which has joined hands with the foreign media, is backed by foreign enemies."

The wife of another opposition leader, Mehdi Karrubi, who was fourth in the vote, said the establishment "was responsible for the safety of her family," the opposition "Jaras" website said. "My family and I do not enjoy any security against the rogue forces' nightly attacks," Fatemeh Karrubi said.

War Of Words

In a heated war of words, the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front said in a statement, "The only way out of the current crisis is for the authorities to respect the law and apologize to the nation."

Tens of thousands of people today chanted, "We are ready to sacrifice our lives for our Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]," state television reported, saying the nationwide demonstrations had taken place spontaneously.

"Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind Sunday's protests, which insulted religion," state television reported, referring to the protests taking place during Ashura.

The scale of the pro-government rallies could not be independently verified due to restrictions on the foreign media's movements because of antigovernment protests.

Iranian authorities say eight people were killed in clashes on December 27, when supporters of Musavi used the Ashura religious festival to stage fresh antigovernment rallies.

Police said the "suspicious deaths" were being investigated, adding dozens of security men were injured in the clashes.

Authorities blame what they call foreign-backed "terrorist groups" for the killings, including the death of Musavi's nephew Ali Habibi Musavi Khamene.

"What happened on Ashura day was an unsuccessful preplanned scenario to harm the Islamic state's image and weaken the system," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted the head of the volunteer Basij militia, Mohammadreza Naqdi, as saying.

Parliament speaker Ali Larijani urged the judiciary to arrest those behind the antigovernment rally. "Identify them, arrest them, and firmly punish those who insulted religion," Larijani said, according to state television.

Larijani also called on opposition leaders to refrain from calling any more protests against the clerical establishment.

When the June 12 presidential election returned Ahmadinejad to power by a wide margin, thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the biggest antigovernment demonstrations in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic.

Street protests have shown no sign of abating since the vote, which authorities say was the healthiest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah. They strongly reject the opposition leaders' accusations of widespread vote fraud.

Opposition website "Jaras" said more than 900 protesters were arrested on December 27 in Tehran and the central city of Isfahan. Police said 300 people had been arrested in Tehran.

U.S. President Barack Obama strongly condemned on December 28 what he said was the "iron fist of brutality" used to quell the protests and demanded the immediate release of detainees.