TEHRAN, Iran – A massive wave of riot police used tear gas and live bullets to crush demonstrations Monday as the apparent murder of a young woman, captured on a dramatic cellphone video that has gone viral, became a rallying cry for opposition to the nation's hardline government.
Eyewitnesses said a huge wave of cops attacked protesters with tear gas and fired live bullets in the air to disperse about 200 demonstrators as helicopters buzzed overhead in Tehran's Haft-e-Tir Square. The show of force came after the Revolutionary Guard issued a stern warning that no more protests will be tolerated.
"There is a massive, massive, massive police presence," one woman told The Associated Press in Cairo by telephone. "Their presence as really intimidating."
The latest confrontation came as the graphic and disturbing video showing a woman known as "Neda" dying in the arms of her father, felled by a sniper's bullet to the heart over the weekend, circulated around the world, galvanizing the opposition and generating international outrage. While the video's authenticity cannot be verified, it has been widely viewed on the web, through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The New York Daily News identified the victim as Neda Soltani, 16, although the BBC put her age at 26. A Facebook group established in her honor calls her "The Angel of Iran." Time magazine reported that, while it isn't even clear who fired the shot, Neda's death "may have changed everything" by giving demonstrators a powerful new rallying cry. Martyrdom is a potent force in Islam, and Shia Muslims mourn their dead three, seven and 40 days after their death, noted Time. Those dates could inspire more angry demonstrations, rubbing raw the memory of Neda, whose name in Farsi means "the call," or "the voice.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain said: "Today, I and all America pays tribute to a brave young woman who was trying to exercise her fundamental human rights and was killed in the streets of Tehran."
The video could become a flashpoint for the confrontation between the hardline regime and millions of protesters who accuse the government of rigging the presidential election. On Monday, Iran's Revolutionary Guard warned protesters that they face a "revolutionary confrontation" if they demonstrate again.
Despite the tough warning, demonstrators again gathered in Tehran, where riot police gathered in massive forces to break up protests, barring people from standing still or even walking with one another.
Britain, accused by Iran of fomenting post-election unrest, said it was evacuating the families of diplomats and other officials based in Iran — the first country to do so.
For the last week, demonstrators have gathered in the streets daily, openly defying the hardline government and decrying an election they say was fraudulent. They have been spurred on by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformer who lost the election to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran's Guardian Council has finished its analysis into voter fraud. The powerful body of clerics determined that ballot stuffing took place and that vote totals exceeded the population in some 50 cities, affecting up to 3 million votes. But the council said that the discrepancies would have had little effect on the election and that the June 12 election was valid.
After the news was announced on English-language press TV, Mousavi called for more demonstrations and vowed he will stand by the protesters whose week of defiance has deeply shaken the country, but says he won't allow their lives to be put in peril and says the security forces that bloodied them are their comrades.
The statements by Mousavi, posted on Web sites of his allies during the weekend, underline the dangers and strategic dilemma facing the throngs who rose up last week to protest disputed election results that showed Ahmadinejad, overwhelmingly winning a second term.
The landslide official results provoked an extraordinary outburst of huge street demonstrations — and a brutal response from police and the feared militia called the Basij. At least 10 protesters were killed on Saturday and the official death toll from the week of demonstrations stands at 17.
Iranian police said in a Monday statement that 457 people were arrested on Saturday. It did not say how many had been arrested during the rest of the week or how many remained in custody.
Searing images posted online hinted the true casualty toll may be higher. Journalists for foreign media have been put under tight restrictions and assessing the extent of the protests and violence is difficult.
Tehran's streets were mostly quiet on Sunday, but cries of "God is great" and "Death to the dictator" echoed again from rooftops after dark, a sign of seething anger at the government crackdown.
The government intensified a crackdown on independent media — expelling a BBC correspondent, suspending the Dubai-based network Al-Arabiya and detaining at least two local journalists for U.S. magazines.
English-language state television said an exile group known as the People's Mujahedeen had a hand in the street violence and broadcast what it said were confessions of British-controlled agents in an indication that the government was ready to crack down even harder.
That leaves the opposition scrambling for a way to maintain the momentum of the protests that have riveted while not bringing new bloodshed.
Mousavi warned supporters of danger ahead, and said he would stand by the protesters "at all times." But in the Web site letters, he said he would "never allow anybody's life to be endangered because of my actions" and called for pursuing fraud claims through an independent board.
The former prime minister, a longtime loyalist of the Islamic government, also called the Basij and military "our brothers" and "protectors of our revolution and regime." He may be trying to constrain his followers' demands before they pose a mortal threat to Iran's system of limited democracy constrained by Shiite clerics, who have ultimate authority.
His chances of success within the system would be far higher if he has backers among those clerics.
In the clearest sign yet of a splintering among the ayatollahs, state media announced the arrests Sunday of relatives of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani including his daughter Faezeh, a 46-year-old reformist politician vilified by hard-liners for her open support of Mousavi.
Rafsanjani's relatives, who state media said were held for their own protection, were released after a few hours.
Rafsanjani heads the cleric-run Assembly of Experts, which can remove the supreme leader, the country's most powerful figure. He also chairs the Expediency Council, a body that arbitrates disputes between parliament and the unelected Guardian Council.
Rafsanjani and his family have been accused of corruption by Ahmadinejad. And the 75-year-old ayatollah was conspicuously absent Friday from an address by the country's supreme leader calling for national unity and siding with the president.
That fueled speculation that Rafsanjani, who has made no public comment since the election, may be working behind the scenes and favoring Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad appeared to be courting his own clerical support. State television showed him meeting with mullahs at the presidential palace and telling them the election had demonstrated popular love for the regime.
He criticized British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama, who on Saturday urged Iranian authorities to halt "all violent and unjust actions against its own people."
"With that behavior you will not be among Iran's friends," Ahmadinejad said, in a potentially ominous sign for Obama's recent efforts to warm relations with Iran.
Obama, for his part, has reiterated his stance of condemning violence but staying out of the the politics or the vote.
"The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Obama said in an interview to be broadcast Monday. "We shouldn't be playing into that."